In more than 90 minutes of soccer, the United States women’s national team attempted 13 shots and forced Canadian goalkeeper Stephanie Labbe to make four saves, but there was only one moment in all of that when it appeared this Olympic soccer semifinal game wasn’t progressing exactly as Canada planned.
With four minutes to play in regulation and the U.S. facing the most desperate circumstance it had encountered in a decade of major tournaments, veteran forward Carli Lloyd headed a cross toward the target, leading Labbe to leap desperately with her arm reaching toward the sky above Kashima Stadium near Japan’s Eastern coast. Labbe couldn’t get a hand on the ball, and Lloyd’s shot struck the target.
No, literally, it struck the target, slamming off the crossbar and bouncing harmlessly back toward the empty stands.
It would be inaccurate to say this moment crystallized the whole of the USWNT’s frustration in the Tokyo Olympics, because there was actual danger in it. Menace was painfully rare from the moment they opened against Sweden not quite two weeks ago.
For Canada to score the goal that led to its 1-0 victory — and advancement to the gold medal match — required what could be viewed as a massive amount of good fortune or a desperate misplay in the 72nd minute by American central defender Tierna Davidson, who turned what should have been a routine clearance into a penalty kick by misplaying a header that was traveling toward the end line with Canada’s Nichelle Prince rushing to play it.
Davidson had a clear lead in the race to the ball but, after slowing to play it, missed the ball and struck Deanne Rose with her boot, knocking her to the ground just inside the right edge of the 18-yard-box. It seemed inconsequential at the time. Rose didn’t even protest for a call. But the video assistant referee saw enough to check the play, and a penalty was correctly assessed.
“It sucks, not to be able to compete for a gold medal which is what we wanted. Not a great performance, either,” forward Megan Rapinoe told NBC Sports. “I think that’s one of the most frustrating things. I don’t know. It’s not like we have a bad vibe. And the group is feeling good and everything. But we just haven’t been able to find that juice. Yeah, it sucks.”
The penalty was expertly converted by Canadian midfielder Jesse Fleming past the reach of diving goalkeeper Adriana Franch, who entered in the first half after starter Alyssa Naeher left the game with a leg injury. That this decided the game was a product of a USWNT attack — generous to call it that — that produced zero goals in three of the five games they played so far in the tournament. None against Sweden. None against Australia. None here. The U.S. never had been shut out three times in an Olympics or World Cup. It had happened only five times total in a dozen major tournaments dating back 30 years.
All of this team’s efforts were differently futile, though. In the Sweden opener, the U.S. was overwhelmed. In the Australia game, with a chance to build on a destruction of New Zealand and perhaps gain momentum, confidence and direction, coach Vlatko Andonovski was content to have the team kick it around for much of the second half and settle for a mutually beneficial draw. In this game, Canada jammed the midfield and played the U.S. tight and such skilled midfielders as Rose Lavelle and Lindsey Horan committed an avalanche of turnovers.
“I think football always needs joy,” winger Megan Rapinoe said in her press conference. “When the game is really played at its best is when you have that. I feel we haven’t been able to do that. Everything’s been a little bit of a struggle. Just the passes off here or there. Or whatever it is.”
Coaching his first major tournament, Andonovski approached the Olympics as though he were playing chess. Everyone else, though, was playing soccer. His constant player rotation left the team disjointed. Against the Netherlands and Canada in the knockout rounds, he subbed out his entire, three-person forward line. In neither of those games did the change produce a goal.
“There was a lot of rotation, so in a way I think we had the freshest legs of any team,” forward Alex Morgan told reporters. “But they [Canada] also had the consistency in the lineup. So that’s what you have to weigh in a tournament like this. It’s very different than a World Cup. There was more substitutions than there’s ever been. So it’s a completely different tournament to manage.”
Andonovski gave Tobin Heath, coming off an injury that had kept her from competitive action for nearly eight months, 305 minutes of playing time in Tokyo and got a single assist in the New Zealand blowout in return. His disregard for midfielder Sam Mewis left one of the heroes of the 2019 World Cup triumph too often on the sideline. The decision to tango with Australia rather than pursue victory was always going to have just one justification: winning the gold medal. Instead, the U.S. will play for bronze, something they’ve never done since Olympic women’s soccer first was offered in 1996.
He will be faulted for relying too heavily on the aging core that dominated the 2019 World Cup, but younger players such as Lavelle, Horan and left back Crystal Dunn had substandard tournaments. And central defender Abby Dahlkemper, only 28, performed so poorly against Sweden and the Netherlands she was benched for Davidson. Everyone saw how that turned out.
Which does lead to the question: If capable players are mostly performing below par, who absorbs the blame, and what are the consequences beyond playing for a medal made of the wrong metal?
“We’re still the same team. We never get up here and say we’re going to be perfect or win every single game,” Rapinoe said. “All we do is try to do our best on and off the field and do everything we can to make our fans proud and family proud and everyone back home.
“No one knows what to say and everyone wishes they can turn into dust. But that’s not how it works. We still have another game. We still have a medal to compete for. It’s not the type of medal we wanted, but we need to understand how lucky we are to go and compete for that. Not many people get to the Olympics, much less a medal round. We certainly don’t want to lose two in a row. We need to think about this, think about what we can do better and get ourselves ready.”
At least there’s an easy answer to that last one. They can do everything better.