Sometimes that’s all it takes.
After having the better of a 0–0 draw against Sweden through 120 minutes of regular and extra time, the only thing that separated the United States Women’s National Team and their opponents was a sliver of green space that showed Lina Hurtig’s sudden-death penalty had crossed the U.S. goal line. U.S. goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher read Hurtig’s shot well and got both hands to it, but the ball spun up off her fingers and fluttered forward into the goal. The goalkeeper scrambled on the ground to claw it out, but not—goal-line technology would eventually rule—before it crossed the line by the smallest of fractions. An inconsistent, unconvincing U.S. side played its best game of the tournament and went tumbling out anyway, knocked off its perch by a couple of blades of grass.
It shouldn’t have come to that. The U.S. should have scored in regulation. It should have scored in extra time. It should have scored more in the penalty shootout, where it had perhaps the most unlikely goats. Four years ago, you would have bet your life on Megan Rapinoe taking a penalty. This 38-year-old version of the player inspired less confidence, looking heavy-legged and poorly calibrated in her minutes against both Portugal and Sweden. It felt as though she expected her body to be able to rise to the occasion once it reached this stage, to find the same poise and perfection that characterized her tournament in 2019, even if it was in significantly fewer minutes, but no one who watched her on the ball this year could have the same confidence in her as they did in 2019.
She wasn’t the only one to come up short. Sophia Smith, who never managed to grow into the tournament she was meant to be the star of, missed what could have been the winner after Rapinoe. Then veteran Kelley O’Hara doinked a chipped attempt off the post in sudden death, opening the door for Hurtig’s photo-finish winner.
It was a harsh but fair way for this particular edition of the U.S. women to be eliminated. The USWNT controlled far more of the ball than it did against the Netherlands or Portugal, holding a very good Sweden team to a single shot on target—the first save made by Naeher in this entire tournament—and peppering the Swedish goal with 11 on-frame attempts of its own. Only the fast-twitch heroics of Swedish keeper Zećira Mušović got the game to penalties in the first place.
But the U.S. was still a shadow of its previous self, unable to create separation from its opponents. Better didn’t equal great. The USWNT looked like a team that could advance today, but not like one that would win this entire tournament. Mušović was fantastic, but the Americans still couldn’t produce any chances that their forwards could hit beyond her reach.
The U.S. had some luck early on exploiting the attention Sweden was paying to Smith by having her drop deep then switching the ball to her counterpart on the other flank, Trinity Rodman. Rodman—who, yes, is the daughter of former NBA star oddity Dennis, though they are not close—had a disappointing group stage, which hardly makes her unique among U.S. players. This game though, the unbalanced U.S. front line turned her into the tip of the spear at times, with Sweden chasing Smith and Alex Morgan as they floated and switched, and forgetting the one ahead. But Rodman couldn’t finish the best chances this gave her, shooting right at Mušović with her best chances. The Swedish goalkeeper would show early in the second half that it would take a lot more than that to beat her, denying Lindsey Horan with what will end up being one of the better saves made in this tournament.
For the first time in three games, the USWNT was able to stay on the front foot throughout, thanks to Andonovski finally making a tactical tweak to help his overrun midfield. Emily Sonnett is typically a utility-knife defender for the national team. Though she recently switched into playing a defensive midfield role for her club, NWSL’s OL Reign, she was an unlikely choice to help shore up the U.S. in their spot of need. This was her first-ever start in midfield for her country. Did she ever look entirely comfortable? No, not really. Did she get the job done anyway? Yeah. Best of all, having help next to her unlocked the best in regular defensive midfielder Andi Sullivan, who played with less apprehension knowing there would always be cover for her. It looked like the change the Americans needed to make 135 minutes ago, as soon as it became clear they couldn’t hang with the Netherlands.
Sonnett was great on Sunday, but as the team looks forward, it’s worth questioning why she had to be. There’s a plausible, charitable read in which the hope was that Julie Ertz, recently returned from a long injury and maternity layoff, would be able to be that defensive presence in the midfield the team needed—but that she just wasn’t ready for it. Unfortunately, even in that world, the U.S. had one center back (Alana Cook) and two midfielders (Ashley Sanchez and Kristie Mewis) who played a grand total of one minute in the tournament combined, despite the team’s struggles. Couldn’t one of those spots on the roster have been filled with a player the coach actually trusted there? And if that player does not exist—which seems like it’s been the case throughout Andonovski’s tenure—then his conception of the role that Ertz and eventually Sonnett was entrusted with should have changed sooner than four games into the World Cup.
Indeed, more even than the midfield struggles and the misfiring frontline, the 2023 World Cup exposed Andonovski’s lack of trust in his own players. It was a heroic effort by the U.S. starters to continue taking the game to a Sweden team that got to rotate its squad for its final group game, but there were times toward the end of regulation when the U.S. looked to be losing momentum, and its coach again refused to make full use of his bench. Only Lynn Williams and Rapinoe were given a chance to impact the game with the ball in play; Mewis and O’Hara were subbed on in the final minute of extra time to take penalties. In Rapinoe’s case, the sub seemed to be based more on reputation than performance; she looked ill-equipped to be the team’s offensive difference-maker. The playmaker Sanchez; the teenage speedster Alyssa Thompson; midfielder Savannah DeMelo, who started the first two games and played better than her early hook suggested: They all had front-row seats for the elimination, even as Alex Morgan and Smith flagged under their heavy minutes load. The USWNT had only one pitch to keep throwing at its opponents. Better to try to change something, even if it did fail.
Presumably things will change going forward. Andonovski won’t be returning as the team’s head coach; not even Harold Hill could be convincing enough to keep his job after a tournament in which the team crashed out earlier than ever before, and looked disjointed to boot. Staying rooted to the past and mistrustful of the future is disqualifying for this team at this moment. Doing so just to play ugly, small-margin soccer is worse.
Because there is reason to believe in the future. The U.S. defense looks to be in good shape, allowing one goal and just two shots on target in four games. Center back Naomi Girma was the best American player of the tournament, a fitting heir to Becky Sauerbrunn’s legacy as an unflappable sweeper, earning praise from legends both foreign and domestic. That she’s also one of the team’s most impactful passers is extraordinary. That she is somehow only 23 years old feels unfair. Every other national team in the world would kill for a cornerstone like that for the next decade-plus. As her club team put it:
For Smith? What are you going to believe? Three poor games in this tournament? Or a multiseason record of irrepressible goal-scoring? She was bad at the World Cup. She more than any U.S. player might benefit from moving to play in Europe, facing different defenses in the Champions League there and adding even more tricks to her already prodigious bag. As Catarina Macario and Mallory Swanson return from injury, the next coach will have to find a way to fit them and Smith and Rodman and Lavelle and Thompson and whoever else emerges over the next cycle into a cohesive attacking unit, hopefully with more line changes to allow more players the opportunity to shine on fresh legs.
Barring some big mistakes, the U.S. will remain a power for the foreseeable future. The difference is that it will have to be smarter and more consistent at pretty much every future international tournament if it wants to continue winning them. It won’t be able to afford slow starts. There will be fewer and fewer teams that it can brute-force wins against by sheer virtue of its talent.
We’ve been saying for a decade that as European countries bring more of their institutional knowledge to bear on the women’s game, they will continue to produce better and better players and erase the gap with the U.S. But this tournament has also demonstrated that programs in Africa and Asia, South America and the Caribbean are ripe to reap the rewards of further investment on the women’s side, if their federations can be convinced to do the smart and right thing. More teams than ever are looking to close the gap with the Americans. This year, they got it down to just a fraction of an inch, one that could go either way.