Norway 2-0 USA. That was the score of the US women’s soccer team opener the last time the Olympics were played in Asia. The distance from Qinhuangdao, site of that 2008 game, to the final in Beijing seemed vast, and not just because the buses were so slow.
The result was no fluke. The US women by that point were a faint echo of their past selves. Without a professional league, the sport in the United States was in the doldrums. It seemed at the time that women’s soccer had used up its Warholian 15 minutes of fame.
To make matters worse for the 2008 squad, their best player, Abby Wambach, was horribly injured just before the Games. New coach Pia Sundhage had only a small group of forwards from which to choose – college players Amy Rodriguez and Lauren Cheney (now Holiday), and the enigmatic Natasha Kai.
After the Norway loss, the USA scratched out a 1-0 win over Japan thanks to a goal by Carli Lloyd, then known as an erratic midfielder. With a win over New Zealand and a bit of unexpected help, Japan’s 5-1 rout of Norway, they won the group.
But with Brazil waiting in the final, a gold still looked unlikely. When I took my seat at the USA Today table in the press tribune next to my distinguished colleague Christine Brennan, I informed her that the USA had no chance of winning. Marta and company would simply dazzle their way to gold.
That didn’t happen. Carli Lloyd became Carli Lloyd. Her game-winning goal in extra time was the first of many occasions to which she rose. In 2012, she scored both goals in the USA’s 2-1 win over Japan in the Olympic final. In the 2015 World Cup final, she had a hat-trick in the first 16 minutes, capping it with a majestic shot from near the halfway line.
So, as the US women ponder what went wrong in a 3-0 loss to Sweden on Wednesday, they can look back to Beijing and the subsequent revival. The situation is a little different this time. The 2008 team was young and hungry. The 2021 team is older and has spent the last two years on a PR whirlwind from its 2019 World Cup triumph and an equal pay campaign whose setback in court has merely prolonged its stay in the court of public opinion. And then there was the nature of the loss itself. This wasn’t a slim defeat or even a penalty shootout defeat like the USWNT’s heartbreaker against the Swedes at the 2016 Games, this was a 3-0 beatdown in which the Americans were comfortably second-best. Megan Rapinoe was typically frank in her assessment after the game: “We got our asses kicked”.
But there is precedent aside from the USWNT opening loss in 2008. Spain’s men lost 1-0 to Switzerland in their 2010 World Cup opener, a year removed from a shocking loss to the USA in the Confederations Cup, and went on to win it. In the 2011 Women’s World Cup, Japan and the USA both lost their group-stage finales before playing a classic final that earned Japan a trophy and the USA more fans even in defeat.
Then there is the nature of Wednesday’s opponents. Sweden are no pushovers and won silver at the Rio Games. “They’re one of the best teams in the world. If we play a France four times a year, if we play an England four times a year, we’re going to have those kinds of results,” said Rapinoe.
And the US women are still coming back to full strength. The team’s best player over the past couple of years, Julie Ertz, is working her way back from injury and only played in the second half on Wednesday. Lloyd and Rapinoe may not be 90-minute players any more, but they don’t have to be.
And perhaps this loss will awaken the giant. Like Michael Jordan in his NBA heyday, the US women tend to get star treatment from referees, but those calls only made it slightly easier for the best team in the world to win most of the major trophies on offer from 2012 forward. This is still a ferociously talented team, and they have the go-ahead to pull from a pool of alternates who could end up providing a spark or at least giving the older players some rest. Best of all, they may have a full-strength Ertz when it matters.
And they know that all they need to do to recover from a wake-up call is to wake up.