Playing the Blame Game: Why the U.S. Failed in Rio
August 13, 2016
THE UNITED STATES women’s national team crashed out of the 2016 Olympic Games on Friday afternoon, losing to Sweden in penalties.
For most of the contest, the Americans dominated possession but couldn’t manage to break through Sweden’s defense. Sitting back in a low block, the Swedes bided their time in the first half before striking on the counter in the 61st minute when Stina Blackstenius got inside of Becky Sauerbrunn and slipped a perfectly placed shot past Hope Solo into the side netting.
The U.S. managed to tie the contest 15 minutes later, when Morgan Brian fired a hopeful service into the area. The ball eventually dropped to Alex Morgan and the striker fired an off-balance shot past Hedvig Lindahl for the equalizer.
In extra time, both teams battled back and forth, but neither side could break the deadlock.
The match then went into penalties where U.S. strikers Alex Morgan and Christen Press failed to convert from the spot and Sweden won 4-3.
Almost immediately after the game, the recriminations—mostly flawed—began.
Some blamed Allie Long because she conceded possession on the play that led to Sweden’s goal, but that missed pass happened 80 yards from the U.S. goal.
Some blamed Morgan for failing to convert her penalty and not finishing a number of other chances. However, blaming the loss on her ignores the fact that she scored the game-tying goal in regulation and created multiple opportunities for herself and her teammates over the course of the game. Blaming Morgan—or anyone else—is also a discredit to the Swedes, who played fantastic, last-ditch defense all game long.
Some blamed Carli Lloyd, who was uninvolved for long stretches in the contest, ignoring the fact she played an important part in numerous combinations that produced chances on goal and scored what should have been the dramatic game-winner in the 115th minute of play (the linesman incorrectly ruled Lloyd to be offside on the goal.
Press skied her penalty and fired high on a late shooting opportunity in extra time. However, she also nearly unlocked the match only two minutes after coming into the game with a slick pass right through the heart of Sweden’s defense that found Morgan in on goal.
Mallory Pugh certainly didn’t play her best game, but did put Morgan in for a good opportunity in the first half and remained active for the entirety of the contest. It’s also absurd to lay a loss of this magnitude at the feet of an 18-year-old who has appeared unflappable in games against the world’s best teams this year, and who was surrounded by veteran stars on the field Friday afternoon.
Head coach Jill Ellis rightly deserves some of the blame for a number of interesting decisions. She should have used Crystal Dunn earlier—the U.S. had dropped into a lull right before conceding the opening goal and the game seemed to be screaming for a player of Dunn’s pace and power. Once Dunn entered the match in the 64th minute, she made an immediate impact.
Ellis also might have used Lindsey Horan instead of Long—especially knowing that Sweden would bunker—but Long did well to recycle possession out of the No. 6 position for most of the contest.
Ellis’ substitution pattern also resulted in some disorder. The team switched to a 4-4-2 when Dunn came on, then a 3-5-2 when Megan Rapinoe entered, and returned to a 4-4-2—which forced Tobin Heath to play right back—after the U.S. equalized in the 77th minute. An easier solution would have involved bringing on Ali Krieger for Rapinoe and pushing Heath back onto the wing where she had been effective for most of the match.
However, some of those decisions resulted—no doubt—from Sweden scoring first and forcing the U.S. to chase the game. None of the U.S.’ problems on Friday resulted from any systemic, or long-running issues. In fact, the team had accrued a 16-0-2 record in 2016 heading into the contest. So far this year, the Americans had beaten all comers, including nearly all of the world’s best teams in Canada, England, France (twice), Germany, and Japan.
Penalty kick loss and #USWNT have still trailed a total of 20 minutes in 2+ years of tournament play and soccer Twitter in meltdown mode.— Neil W. Blackmon (@nwblackmon) August 12, 2016
Playing against Sweden’s defensive tactics did seem to call for a lock-picker in the No. 10 position—something Lloyd clearly is not—but at the same time, how could Ellis deny Lloyd the opportunity to push the U.S. on to victory? The captain has proven herself a clutch player time and again, scoring the game-winning goals in the 2008 and 2012 Olympic finals and racking up a hat trick in last summer’s World Cup final.
Going forward for the USWNT the giant challenge is how you build an attack built around Dunn and Pugh that's not hamstrung by Lloyd.— Mike L. Goodman (@TheM_L_G) August 12, 2016
Lloyd—admittedly more of a second forward instead of a playmaker in the No. 10 role—still has the ability to act as a sledgehammer in tight matches and nearly did it again on Friday, the linesman’s poor call in extra-time aside.
All in all, there is plenty of blame to cast about, but a more sober and clear-headed analysis shows this loss to be a combination of bad luck, individual performances that didn’t live up to their normal excellence, and an outstanding and well-executed defend-and-counter strategy from the Swedes and their coach Pia Sundhage.
The U.S. has won Olympic gold on four previous occasions. This time around, it just wasn’t in the cards.
John D. Halloran is an American Soccer Now columnist. Follow him on Twitter.