Thousands of fans across the U.S. woke up at or stayed up until ungodly hours in order to watch the women’s national soccer team kick off their Olympics against Sweden on Wednesday morning. But the team did not return the favor, as they sleepwalked through an extraordinarily disappointing 3–0 loss that, honestly, was 100 percent deserved by the Fightin’ ABBAs. The lopsided defeat ended a 44-match unbeaten streak for the U.S. and, while it far from ends their hopes for gold in Tokyo, it’s certainly an inauspicious beginning to their quest for a fifth gold medal. Mamma Mia, indeed.
Whether it was the heat or jetlag or another unseen factor, something felt off for the USWNT from the onset. Sweden got off to an absolutely dominant start, peppering the American defense with attempts from the opening whistle. They were finally rewarded for their efforts in the 25th minute, when Swedish striker Stina Blackstenius made a brilliant effort to get her head on a great cross from Sofia Jakobsson.
The USWNT was lucky to escape into halftime down just 1–0. Crystal Dunn, in particular, made a clutch tackle in the box just a few minutes after the goal that would have stood out had this game not turned into one to forget. There was a feeling, at least briefly for me, that Sweden would live to rue the opportunities it missed. A certain level of recent World Cup nostalgia brought on by the halftime subs—Carli Lloyd and Julie Ertz—probably helped encourage that belief. But it all evaporated when the U.S. gave up a second goal in the 54th minute. Again it was Blackstenius who scored for the Swedes, taking advantage of some really poor marking on a corner kick to tap in a rebound off the post while completely alone on the far side.
There are a couple of moments from the game that you could pick out as encouraging building blocks for the USWNT going forward. Maybe if Rose Lavelle didn’t hit the post at the end of the first half, or even if a late stoppage time header from Christen Press doesn’t get saved by Hedvig Lindahl and instead thwarts the clean sheet, this doesn’t seem quite so bad. But the irrelevance of those attempts in comparison to Sweden’s performance only serves to underline just how demoralizing this blowout was, and by the time the third Swedish goal took advantage of a stretched defense and entered the net in the 72nd minute, nothing short of a miraculous comeback could have done anything to meaningfully lessen the shock.
The good news here is that, like the Euros, the women’s Olympic tournament is a very forgiving competition, at least at the start. Eight of the 12 teams who traveled to Tokyo will advance out of the group stage, and given that Sweden was the clear favorite to finish second in the U.S.’s group, it at least in theory shouldn’t be too difficult to get the necessary points against Australia and especially New Zealand to stay alive and avoid unprecedented humiliation. But if, after the 2019 World Cup run and the long stretch without a loss, anyone had any illusions about this being an easy or even medium difficulty competition for the U.S. to handle, it only should have taken an hour for those misconceptions to completely disappear. Sustained dominance in women’s soccer is a tough task that’s getting tougher by the year, and no team yet in six tries has managed to follow up a World Cup win with an Olympic gold medal. Wednesday morning was an especially lucid indication of just how frickin’ hard it’s going to be for the USWNT to make history.