Plunged into an Olympic hole, the USWNT now must prove it can still fight like hell out of it

TOKYO — Even as they stacked up victories and championships, even as they were celebrated and decorated in ways women before them could never have imagined, this core group from the United States soccer team always focused on their grit more than talent.

This was a team full of fury and fight, they'd tell you, mentally and physically tough, the best in the world because they could always dig deeper and push harder. It wasn’t just skill. It wasn’t just tactics. That was their mantra, at least. You can’t argue with the results.

Now, after a shocking and humiliating 3-0 loss to Sweden in their Olympic opener, the Americans are going to have to prove it, this time in a way they never have before.

If the U.S. is going to take gold — and when you arrive as the World Cup champs on a 44-game unbeaten streak, that’s the only goal — it’ll need every bit of the tenacity it can muster.

It didn’t just lose to Sweden, the Americans were dominated in ways they just never are.

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

Sure did.

Now what are they going to do about it?

Megan Rapinoe and the USWNT have long insisted that their toughness is what truly separates them from the rest of the world. These Olympics are suddenly a chance to prove it. (Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images)
Megan Rapinoe and the USWNT have long insisted that their toughness is what truly separates them from the rest of the world. These Olympics are suddenly a chance to prove it. (Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images) (Tim Clayton - Corbis via Getty Images)

This is just a 12-team event, so the U.S. has ample opportunity to get out of group play and reach the eight-team knockout stage. It needs to finish second in its group, or be one of the two best third-place teams.

The U.S. plays New Zealand on Saturday and Australia on Tuesday. It can certainly bounce back, but there is little margin for error.

Even then, if Sweden can push the U.S. around like this, do the Americans have what it takes to come back and win this tournament?

It wasn’t like they just slept-walked into this. Sweden was a circle-the-date matchup, a true contender and a chance to gain a measure of revenge over the team that eliminated them in the quarterfinals of the 2016 Rio Olympics.

“One of the worst results that the senior national team has had in a major tournament,” captain Becky Sauerbrunn called that loss.

Yeah, well …

The U.S. was slow to the ball, poor in possession and outclassed from start to finish. The team looked like it was wilting in the heat and humidity of Japan, despite a training camp based mostly in Florida and Texas.

“I don’t even know how many goals we have given up this whole year,” Rapinoe said with a laugh. “I don’t even remember the last time we gave up a goal.”

The Americans had given up one goal in their previous 13 games … in a tie with Sweden in April.

“So to give up three is … not great,” Rapinoe said.

It’s not like this is a group that is just learning to play together. This is essentially a run-it-back roster. Coach Vlatko Andonovski favored experience over youth when putting together the roster. Ten of the 18 active roster players available Wednesday were 30 or over, including seven over 32. Seven of the 10 starting field players saw action in that 2016 Olympic loss. Six starters had 100 or more international appearances, and that didn’t include Carli Lloyd (306), Megan Rapinoe (177) or Julie Ertz (110), who were the first three to come off the bench.

This was an encore performance for this group, a curtain call trying to do something (follow a World Cup with Olympic gold) that no team ever has.

“This is not something we expected,” Andonovski said. “We don’t expect to lose to begin with, especially not 3-0 … I don’t think this team has ever been in a situation like this. It’s a bit of a shock.”

So now what? Is there an adjustment to be made? Is there an attitude to fix? Is there a lineup that works? Was this just a bad night after years of near invincibility?

Alex Morgan lasted just a half before being pulled. Same with Sam Mewis. The midfield was particularly exposed. Really, no one played well other than perhaps goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher, who kept it close for awhile.

One loss doesn’t end the dream or destroy a dynasty. This is one of the greatest teams of all time, legends to the sport. It can absolutely spring back and win it.

Yet age is undefeated. Sweden’s three goals were scored by a pair of 25-year-olds: Stina Blackstenius (two) and Lina Hurtig.

And with just two off days, the Americans need to regroup. New Zealand offers a chance for that, it’s ranked 22nd in the world. Australia, however, is different, a top-10 team capable of — and likely eager to — beat the suddenly bloodied top-ranked USA.

This is when we’ll see what this group still has. Lloyd. Morgan. Rapinoe. O’Hara. Sauerbrunn. Dunn. Press. Heath. Ertz. They’ve won and won to the point where it looked effortless. They were always quick to remind everyone that it wasn’t, that behind the success and behind the commercials and behind the parades these were women who fought like hell to get to the top.

Now here’s the chance to show it, this time with a stunned soccer world suddenly doubting them.

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