CHOFU, Japan — They had been waiting for this game for five years.
Five years ago, Sweden had crushed the US women’s soccer team’s hopes of an Olympic gold medal at the 2016 Rio Games. Five years since a defeat that forced Americans to look in the mirror and ask tough questions about their age, their dominance, their future.
Wait five years, and then end up in the same place again.
The United States opened the Tokyo Olympics on Wednesday where it had ended the Rio Games five years earlier: on the wrong side of a humiliating, embarrassing defeat to Sweden. Then it was the loss on penalties in the quarter-finals; this time it wasn’t nearly as close: Sweden 3, United States 0. But the sting and declaration ingrained in defeat was just as real.
“It feels like a big deal,” defender Kelley O’Hara said of the impending rematch on Tuesday. “It feels like the Olympics. It’s what we’ve been waiting for five years now, to be back here.”
They just never expected it to be like this.
Striker Stina Blackstenius scored a goal for Sweden in each half, a striking header in the 25th minute and a scoreless finish in the 54th that felt like a deserved reward for a dominant performance on the tip of an attack in Sweden that the Americans were aiming for . their heels almost as soon as the game started.
The United States has done everything it can to turn the tide. Positional tweaks to try and help a midfield were routinely overshot. Substitutions to reshape a powerless attack. Reinforcements to strengthen a defense that was first stretched and then disassembled.
Even the most reliable veterans seemed to have little effect. Carli Lloyd and Julie Ertz – in her first appearance in months – came into halftime, but Sweden quickly doubled the lead. Megan Rapinoe was brought in to bring a little threat on the wing but it never materialized.
Even the departure – fortunately according to the Americans – of Blackstenius in the 64th minute was no balm; her replacement, Lina Hurtig, just picked up where she left off by claiming an open header and Sweden’s third goal eight minutes later.
“I thought we were a little tight, a little nervous, just doing stupid things,” Rapinoe said of the early hole her teammates had dug for themselves.
The defeat was the first defeat for the Americans in 24 games under coach Vlatko Andonovski, and the first against an opponent since a loss to France in January 2019. And it will force them to recover in the Olympic tournament: Playing against New Zealand (on Saturday) and Australia (Tuesday) will arrive in the first round in quick succession, and stronger opponents like Great Britain and the Netherlands can wait in the medal round.
“You drop points at the start of a tournament, you’re in do-or-die mode,” Rapinoe said.
But first, the Americans will have to find out what exactly went wrong at Tokyo Stadium.
Perhaps a defeat shouldn’t have been a complete surprise. Sweden is no stranger to the United States – Wednesday’s team meeting was their 10th in a major championship, including matches in the last five World Cups – and a bit of confidence could have been forgiven after putting in a strong performance in April against the United States. States in a 1-1 draw in Stockholm.
At the time, that game seemed like a rare misstep for a United States team for whom losing is an abomination. Until Wednesday, the draw in Stockholm was the only blemish on the record of the Americans under Andonovski (22-0-1).
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Wednesday’s win was a much stronger statement, and it will raise hard questions about Andonovski’s reliance on an aging core — every forward on the United States roster is over 30 — and on past performance as an indicator of future performance.
Although the Olympics were postponed for a year due to the pandemic, the roster in the United States has been relatively unchanged since the 2019 Women’s World Cup. It includes not only the veteran frontline, but also question marks like Ertz, whose performance was her first appearance for a team in months after a leg injury earlier this year, and Tobin Heath, who has only recently returned from an injury of his own.
Seventeen of the players who sought gold in Japan were in fact on the team that won the World Cup in France two years ago. Now they’ll have to summon the kind of guts that brought that award if they’re to claim another, and do so in the melting pot of a scorching Japanese summer and a compressed Olympic schedule.
On Wednesday, at least some of the most experienced players preached patience.
“It will be a difficult tournament,” said attacker Christen Press. “We knew it was going to be a difficult tournament.”
Rapinoe, who watched the team implode in the first hour from the couch, said she wanted to “hold up a mirror to everyone and say, ‘Relax. were good.'”
Defender Becky Sauerbrunn, who went worse than most overnight, sounded ready to move on quickly, even as she acknowledged that the tournament has changed quite a bit – at least from the United States’ perspective.
“Bad night tonight,” Sauerbrunn said. “We have a lot of work ahead of us.”