TOKYO – Welcome to the new U.S. women’s soccer team, where the goal is … playing for a 0-0 tie?
If you listened to coach Vlatko Andonovski after Tuesday’s scoreless draw with Australia in the Group G finale, this was all part of the plan. In fact, he pretty much admitted that playing it safe to protect themselves in the standings was the plan – a concession to the perilous position the Americans put themselves in when they were routed by Sweden 3-0 in the Olympic opener.
“We came in with the mindset that the first goal was to win the game and the second goal was to put a good professional performance and not get scored on,” Andonovski said. “We accomplished the second which was very important because it put us in the same place.”
That place is second place in group and into the quarterfinals against Netherlands. But forgive us for entering the knockout round with more than a little trepidation about what lies ahead for the U.S. women. Because with each passing day of this tournament, this crown jewel of American sports looks more vulnerable.
Going into a defensive shell for 90 minutes? Playing not to get scored on? That’s what this team has been reduced to?
“It was a tactical decision by Vlatko for us to shift defensively a little more conservatively and really allow them to get impatient, play it long and give it back to us,” said Alex Morgan. “Eventually I feel like both teams kind of sat in and it became a game of playing the professional game and moving on so we look forward now to the quarterfinal.”
OK, sure, if the USWNT’s goal was just to protect second place in its group and not risk Australia dropping them into third place, so be it. But this isn’t the identity the USWNT has worked for years to build.
This team’s style of play has been all about going right at the opponent. They show up to tournaments aggressive from the jump, even perhaps a bit cocky. That’s not just what makes them good, it’s what has made them intimidating. It might be what American fans have loved most about this team.
Now it’s fair to wonder if they’ve lost their edge. It’s one thing to say you don’t want to let a player like Australia’s Sam Kerr beat you. It’s another to completely sell out to stop her at the detriment of your own ability to create scoring chances and momentum. It’s just not how the Americans have played.
“I would say it was actually a good opportunity for me to see whether the team is ready to take on the information they’re given and execute it which I was very happy every player had a specific role and they executed very good,” Andonovski said.
But at what cost?
The U.S. is in the quarterfinals, and perhaps that’s all that matters. It’s a new opportunity, a fresh start and the chance to take back the gold medal is still in front of them. But so far, their approach to this tournament has been unrecognizable. It seems the results may be trending that way as well.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: In playing for a tie to advance at Tokyo Games, USWNT losing its edge