The USWNT Lived By An Inch And Died By A Millimeter
9:37 AM EDT on August 6, 2023
The United States will not be the first country to win three World Cup trophies in a row. After a grueling 0-0 draw in which the USWNT had chance after chance after chance to win, both in regulation and in extra time, it is Sweden instead that moves on into the quarterfinals, thanks to a valiant goalkeeping performance and a penalty shootout that featured some of the best kicks you will ever see, some of the worst, and then the only thing anyone will remember from this match in Melbourne. The United States stayed in this World Cup thanks to the thinnest of margins against Portugal, but the reigning champions are going home by an even thinner one:
That's how close Alyssa Naeher got to saving the USWNT from elimination in the penalty shootout, after she got a strong hand on Lina Hurtig's spot kick with the shootout tied at 4-4. There was just too much power on the Swedish No. 8's strike, though, and the ball fluttered slowly, agonizingly over the goal line by what looked to be as small a margin as is physically possible.
After a check with the goal-line technology, it was Swedish bliss and American agony, all of the questions about coaching and rotation and formations thrown out the window in favor of the harsh reality that soccer sometimes just means the ball bounced in favor of one team and not another.
Really, though, this one will hurt the United States more because of the game that came before that most cruel of endings. At least from the start, Vlatko Andonovski, rightfully beleaguered for questionable tactics and lineup selections in the group stage, got this one right. This was the U.S.'s most complete performance of the tournament. A return to the 4-2-3-1 formation that USWNT had settled into late last year, with Emily Sonnett coming into midfield for the suspended Rose Lavelle and slotting in next to Andi Sullivan in a double pivot, offering the side something they lacked in the matches against the Netherlands and Portugal: control.
Whereas those previous two opponents were able to overrun the midfield and force the U.S. to play long balls, Sweden chose a different tack, bolstering up a very strong defense and trying to win on set pieces. It mostly worked, though Sweden would be the ones going home sad if not for the heroics of Zecira Musovic, the 27-year-old goalie who plays for Chelsea in England. Musovic was the player of the match—with all due respect to the wonderful Naomi Girma, who was a brick wall for the United States—with several big saves (11 in total) keeping Sweden level. She was helped by some questionable touches and decisions from the American attack, particularly Alex Morgan, who leaves her worst World Cup to date with zero goals on what felt like 90 subpar shots (it was 18).
It was shocking, then, that Morgan stayed on the field for as long as she did, though substitution conservatism had been the story of the tournament for the USWNT. Andonovski squandered a lot of the goodwill his match-opening gambit might have earned him by only making one substitution in regular time, and even that change was only due to Trinity Rodman's recent bout with illness. (Rodman was fantastic, the most dangerous attacker on the field, until her substitution in the 68th minute; her replacement, Lynn Williams, was similarly stellar down the right wing.) It wasn't until the 98th minute when Andonovoski finally took off Morgan for Alyssa Thomps—no, wait, that's wrong, it was Megan Rapinoe once again.
Rapinoe is one of the most successful and important players in USWNT history, but she was clearly past it this tournament. It's somewhat fitting that her final appearance in this team's jersey, the one she helped add two stars to, saw her miscontrol and mishit a handful of balls, including one ill-fated moonshot in the penalty shootout.
By the time Andonovski used his final two subs, the advantage that the USWNT had enjoyed all game—and it'd been a big advantage: 22-9 shots in favor of the Americans, as well as a 58-42 possession split—was gone, and instead this round of 16 clash between familiar opponents came down to penalties, the great equalizer. Heading into the spot kicks, Musovic loomed large, though she ended up not playing as much of a role as her counterpart, given that the USWNT missed three penalties without any help from the Swedish goalie: Rapinoe blasted hers over, Sophia Smith sailed the potential game-winner, and Kelley O'Hara was the final miss, attempting to chip the ball in, but merely hitting the post.
The goalie who did step up was Alyssa Naeher, who saved a penalty from Rebecka Blomqvist and then inexplicably, marvelously took and converted a penalty kick herself. Had a millimeter gone another way later in the shootout, this would have been the moment where the USWNT turned the tides and went through, as Naeher rocketed her penalty right down the middle. But it turned out that hers was the last penalty the team would convert.
It all ended with Naeher again, only this time, she was just too little too late on Hurtig's kick. There is probably no more heartbreaking way to lose a World Cup match than by a millimeter in a penalty shootout. A four-year cycle has many ups and downs, and the USWNT has gone through more of the latter than anyone expected since lifting the trophy in France four years ago. It would be overly reductive to narrow all those hardships—many of them Andonovski-related; if he is still the coach of the team by the time they land back in the United States, it will be an upset—to a single moment of bad luck, but that's simply how soccer works, and doubly so at the international level.
Here's the reality: The USWNT had the talent to win this World Cup, but the group never coalesced into a team good enough to do so. The distinction there is all-encompassing, and a team can't be good without also being a bit lucky. Maybe in an alternate universe, some of those 22 shots go in, or maybe Musovic misses one by the same millimeter that damned the United States. Or maybe Andonovski reverts to the 4-2-3-1 system earlier, and the team beats Portugal and avoids Sweden. Maybe maybe maybe.
At the end of the day, though, what happened happened, and now the USWNT will have to regroup and rebuild. The last vestiges of the era of back-to-back trophies should be gone next time around; Rapinoe has now officially retired, while Naeher, O'Hara, Ertz, Morgan, and Crystal Dunn will all be in their mid-to-late-30s by 2027. The next generation is already here, with Smith, Rodman, Thompson, Girma, and Ashley Sanchez all currently in their early-or-mid-20s, so there is hope that things can turn around as soon as the Olympics in Paris next summer. There should be a new coach, and maybe a more thorough change in the U.S. Soccer system, before then, so that's reason for hope as well.
None of that will feel especially comforting to the disappointed players at the moment, of course. It's likely that that animated image of the ball just a smidge over the goal line will be a recurring feature of the USWNT players' nightmares for some time. For a team so used to winning, this is a humbling end, akin to the USWNT's loss in the 2011 World Cup final on penalties. What came after that loss to Japan was the greatest period of World Cup success the sport has seen. Time will tell if going out this way in 2023 will have a similar effect.