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Opinion: USWNT's loss is either wake-up call or sign of what's to come at Tokyo Olympics

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TOKYO – It is shocking whenever the U.S. women's soccer team loses, given how rarely it happens.

This, though, was something altogether. The defending World Cup champions didn’t simply lose their opener at the Tokyo Olympics. They were thoroughly outclassed. Embarrassed, really. A team that normally shows little sign of weakness had its flaws laid bare for the entire world to see.

“We got our asses kicked, didn’t we?” Megan Rapinoe said.

Yes. They most certainly did.

The 3-0 loss to Sweden on Wednesday night was the U.S. women’s worst showing at a major international tournament since a 4-0 loss to Brazil at the 2007 World Cup. It also was the squad’s first loss since January 2019, snapping a 44-game unbeaten streak.

And no one outside of Sweden saw it coming.

This U.S. team is largely the same as the one that won its second consecutive World Cup in 2019. It has looked utterly ruthless since Vlatko Andonovski took over as coach, allowing just four goals in 23 games.

Add to that the sting the Americans still feel from that loss to Sweden in the quarterfinals at the Rio Olympics, and you could be forgiven for expecting the U.S. women to put on the kind of punishing display that has become the USWNT trademark.

Instead, they looked befuddled and inept. Sweden went at the U.S. from the opening whistle, and the Americans never had an answer.

“I don’t think this team expects to lose a game to begin with,” Andonovski said. “But they (really) don’t expect to lose 3-0.”

Yes, the USWNT had chances. Rose Lavelle hit the post just before halftime, and Christen Press did so in the 71st.

U.S. goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher (1) reacts after a goal by Sweden midfielder Lina Hurtig (not pictured) during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Tokyo Stadium.
U.S. goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher (1) reacts after a goal by Sweden midfielder Lina Hurtig (not pictured) during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Tokyo Stadium.

But this was not a game where the Americans were simply unlucky. Sweden was the better, more aggressive, more skillful team, and the U.S. is actually fortunate that the score wasn’t more lopsided.

Sweden shredded and slithered its way through the midfield as if the Americans were invisible. Or standing still. The U.S. women’s defensive miscues, of which there were many, were confounding; on Stina Blackstenius’ second goal, for example, she was left largely unmarked at the far post on a corner kick, allowing her to chip a rebound over Alyssa Naeher’s head.

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When the Americans did get the ball, it wasn’t for long – or to much effect. Too often passes were made to empty spaces, and there was never any sense that the Americans were in control. At one point in the first half, when the game was still somewhat within reach, Lavelle held out her hands as if to say, “What are we doing?”

“You want to put a mirror up to everyone and say, `Relax, you’re good,’” said Rapinoe, who came on as a sub in the second half. “You can feel the tightness.”

The only positive is that, unlike 2016, this was not a knockout game. The top two teams in each group advance, and Australia and New Zealand are unlikely to give the Americans the kind of challenge Sweden did.

The next U.S. game is Saturday against New Zealand.

Press tried to put a good spin on the loss, saying a reality check might be what this team needs after its long unbeaten stretch. She also pointed out that the U.S. women still won gold after dropping their opener in 2008.

“I do. Of course I do,” captain Becky Sauerbrunn said when asked if she thought the Americans can still win gold. “We have to recover and close out this match, make sure our heads and our hearts are in the right place going into the next one.”

But will that be enough? The answer is no longer as certain as it once seemed.

A team that had designs on becoming the first reigning World Cup champions to win Olympic gold now looks vulnerable, and that’s something no one really entertained before Wednesday night.

“Sometimes I feel like if ever we lose or tie or another team gives us a game, it’s unbelievable, and that’s really kind of offensive to every other team,” Rapinoe said. “This is the highest level in the world, and Sweden is one of the best teams in the world.”

Yes, but the Americans are the best team in the world. If they don't start playing like it, there will be more shocks in store.

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: USWNT falls to Sweden to open play at Tokyo Olympics