The USWNT fell into the same trap every World Cup winner trying to earn Olympic gold does

·6 min read

KASHIMA, Japan — The U.S. women’s soccer team will not play for gold at the 2020 Olympics, and officially, their downfall was a dud of a 1-0 loss to Canada here on Monday. It was a 75th-minute penalty, awarded after a video review, converted by Canada’s Jessie Fleming. It sent Americans to their haunches, “heartbroken,” and to a bronze medal match on Thursday that none of them wanted to play.

But really, their downfall had been coming, for weeks, maybe months, arguably for years. History tried to warn them. They ignored it.

No women’s soccer team has ever won a World Cup and Olympic gold back-to-back, and one reason often postulated is that success restrains evolution. Formulas that lead to trophies are retained, and trotted out again 13 months later, by which point stars have aged, opponents have caught on and tactics have become outdated.

U.S. Soccer tried to interrupt that logic. It introduced Vlatko Andonovski as the USWNT's new head coach. Andonovski introduced a new system, new styles, new energy. His team didn’t lose for 19 months. They entered the Olympics unbeaten in 44 games. They seemed impervious to all that had felled previous World Cup winners.

But then they arrived in Japan, and gradually, over five games in 13 grueling days, the world realized that they, like so many others before, had fallen into the trap.

They’d clung to past success, and hoped to recreate it. They couldn’t.

Megan Rapinoe and the USWNT won't become the first team to follow a World Cup win with a gold medal after Canada beat them 1-0 in the Olympic semifinals. (Photo by Francois Nel/Getty Images)
Megan Rapinoe and the USWNT won't become the first team to follow a World Cup win with a gold medal after Canada beat them 1-0 in the Olympic semifinals. (Photo by Francois Nel/Getty Images)

The USWNT never hit top gear here, and nobody involved could quite explain their shortcomings. “We didn't play our best,” Alex Morgan said. “We made a lot of technical errors. Everyone. I don't know why.”

And Megan Rapinoe: “I don't know. It's not like we have a bad vibe. … But we just haven't been able to find that juice that we normally do.”

“I don't know,” Carli Lloyd echoed, beads of sweat coating her face and soaking her jersey. “I don't know at this moment. I don't know.”

Which makes sense, because those who fall into the trap rarely notice. None of the Americans could pinpoint what went wrong, because staleness doesn’t slap you across the face. It creeps in, across the board, ounce by ounce.

“We can deep dive into analyzing, and I know we will,” Rapinoe said Monday. Coaches and players will dissect their preparation, their tactics,. But it’s “the simple things,” Rapinoe said. “Everything else, that's what we were missing. And you can't put a name on the ‘everything else.’ But it's just the getting it done from players, from all of us. Maybe [goalkeeper] Alyssa [Naeher] is the only one who's performed close to her ability. I think all of us players know that and feel that.”

“That” was evident against Sweden, and against Australia, and even against the Netherlands. The U.S. scraped into the semis but never looked like the world-beating machine everybody thought they’d be. Passes were errant. Touches were sloppy. Fatigue came quick in 90-plus-degree heat and humidity.

Canadian players could sense all of it. They’d watched the USWNT’s first four games, and “we kinda had a feeling they were ripe for the picking,” Christine Sinclair said. “That if there was a chance” to finally beat the U.S. for the first time since 2001, “it was gonna be tonight.”

Nobody, it must be said, had seen this coming two months ago. But the lack of turnover, of fresh blood, lingered in minds when Andonovski named an 18-woman roster of 17 2019 World Cup veterans and only one newbie. Eleven of the 18 were 2016 Olympians. Together, they had more than 2,000 USWNT appearances.

On paper, it all sounded great. But that’s the trap.

“Repeating” a triumph 25 months later isn’t really repeating at all. The competition is different. The names are the same, but the stars aren’t who they once were. Collectively, the 18 were, on average, over 30 years old. A few came in carrying injuries. None of them, over five games here, climbed to their former peaks.

Andonovski had insisted prior to the tournament that he wasn’t worried about age, and insisted again Monday it wasn’t the problem. “No, not at all,” he said. But how else could he explain the lack of juice, the lack of execution, the lack of joy?

Nobody could.

Did the circumstances hurt? Perhaps. Some players felt worn down by almost a month of restricted movement, mostly bound to hotels, unable to pop into coffee shops. “I think the work-life balance is probably a little off, or completely off,” Rapinoe said after the opener. And it only skewed further as the tournament wore on. That experience wasn’t unique to the U.S., of course, but to some members of a reduced USWNT delegation, it was draining.

“Yeah, I'm not gonna lie, I miss having a normal life,” Lloyd said. “Miss home, miss my husband, family, friends.”

She mentioned the empty stadiums, and having to stay “10 feet” away from reporters. On Monday, she’d had enough of it. She walked in front of the table at which she was supposed to stand, and moved within a couple feet of reporters for a post-match interview. Stadium volunteers told her to move back and keep a distance. “It’s fine,” she told them, repeatedly.

She’d been “gutted” at the final whistle, and how could she not be? She’d given everything. The entire team had given everything. They’d lost Naeher, the star of the quarterfinal, to an apparent knee injury in the first half. They’d shaken off sloppiness and, after the introduction of Rapinoe, Lloyd and Christen Press in the second half, they’d threatened. The decisive penalty, via a mistake by 22-year-old defender Tierna Davidson, had come against the run of play.

But not against the run of the tournament. The U.S. played five games here and won only one in regulation, against lowly New Zealand. The players lacked rhythm, lacked composure, lacked verve.

They didn’t lack effort. They were just a 2019 team playing in 2021, with extra years on their legs and no way to go back in time.

At the final whistle, they all had different reactions. Some walked around, dumbfounded, bereft.

“It's always sh—y,” Rapinoe said. “No one knows what to say, and everyone just wishes they could turn into dust.

“But that's not how it works. And we have another game. We still have a medal to compete for. It's obviously not the type of medal that we wanted. But we need to understand, still … Not many people even freakin’ get to the Olympics, much less the medal round.”

This result, though?

"Sucks,” Rapinoe said, blunt as ever. “Really sh—y.”

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