In perhaps the biggest upset of the Olympics so far, the United States women’s soccer team was eliminated by Sweden in the quarterfinals on Friday, undone in a penalty shootout.
The U.S. women, who lifted last year’s Women’s World Cup, had never failed to reach the Olympic final in five prior editions of the tournament. They had won four of those five title games, and the last three in a row. But a rejuvenated American side was outlasted on penalties after a 1-1 tie with a wily Swedish team, coached by former U.S. manager Pia Sundhage – who had never lost to her former team in three prior games.
The Americans were the towering favorites. Sweden had managed just two goals in its three group stage goals, and one of those had come in a 5-1 hammering at the hands of the hosts Brazil – which the U.S. was widely expected to face in Tuesday’s semifinal.
But whereas the Americans reportedly already had a plan outlined for another post-championship victory tour, Sweden had a plan for this game.
Sundhage would counteract her team’s offensive challenges by packing her lines deep and centrally into their own half and forcing the U.S. to loft crosses right into the heart of the tall, strong and stout Swedish defense. As such the Americans dominated the game, but created very few scoring chances of actual promise.
The USA, having complained about the state of the field ahead of the game, quickly threatened when an Alex Morgan header was cleared off the line and a Morgan Brian shot saved by Hedvig Lindahl in the third minute. But their attack soon fizzled as the Swedes consolidated their defense.
All that direct play only seemed to sap the USA’s energy while Sweden grew emboldened in their success and began venturing forward on the counter. That occasionally left room for Jill Ellis’s team to play their preferred game over the ground and through the middle, but the final pass was lacking all day.
Then, in the second half, after a series of fortuitously positioned American free kicks yielded nothing of note, Sweden pounced. A nice midfield combination sprung Stina Blackstenius through the middle, who held off defender Julie Johnston and beat goalkeeper Hope Solo with an impeccable finish in the 61st minute.
That induced an unmistakable panic in the American side, and a series of attacking substitutions followed. Added pressure through the insertions of Crystal Dunn and Megan Rapinoe, and the continued threat from the 18-year-old Mallory Pugh immediately forged danger.
In the 77th minute, Sweden’s Kosovare Asllani went down with an injury, but there was no whistle and the U.S. carried on playing. A cross from Tobin Heath skimmed off Crystal Dunn in an aerial duel and hit the unsuspecting Jessica Samuelsson in the face. It fell kindly for Morgan, who slotted the ball home, to make it 1-1, to the immense relief of her teammates.
The Americans, sensing that extra time and perhaps even penalties could be avoided, didn’t relent and came close several more times, with Carli Lloyd’s shot deflected just wide and Dunn opening up several more looks for her colleagues up front. But the winner didn’t come before the final whistle, sending the game to extra time. There, the U.S., for all its depth, had the distinct disadvantage of having played its last game in the tropics of Manaus, meaning they had dealt with a great deal more heat and travel than their opponents.
The extra periods, as often, were largely uneventful. Until the 115th minute, that is, when Lloyd and Lotta Schelin had goals dubiously disallowed on either end in the span of a minute. Lloyd freed herself up for a header but was adjudged to have fouled her marker Magdalena Ericsson before nodding the ball home. If it was indeed a foul – because she wasn’t offside – it was a soft one. Then Schelin was called offside on the other end even though she was on until an American touch gave her a open shot at Solo, which she converted.
To penalties it went. And Morgan’s opening shot for the U.S. was parried by Lindahl. Solo, however, saved the third Swedish attempt by Linda Sembrant. But Press then popped the fifth kick high. Solo Solo switched gloves, in an apparent attempt to put Lisa Dahlkvist off, but the veteran would not be perturbed and sent her side into the semifinals.
The last time a U.S. game at a major tournament had gone to penalties, they lost a World Cup final to Japan in 2011. This time around, it induced the team’s worst failure at a major tournament ever. The U.S. had never before failed to reach the final four in a World Cup or Olympics.