Soccer

How did the USWNT fall short of Olympic gold? Rating the many theories

Why has the No. 1-ranked U.S. women’s national team struggled so much at the Tokyo Olympics? Not even the players and staff seem to know.

“I don’t know,” Carli Lloyd said after the USWNT’s 1-0 upset loss to Canada in the semifinal. “I don’t know in this moment. It happens, you know? You can’t win them all.”

Coach Vlatko Andonovski was at a similar loss on Monday, telling reporters, “I don’t really know,” before adding: “I guess we’re going to have to go back and dig a little deeper and find out what is it that didn’t go the way we wanted.”

– Report: USWNT lose to Canada in Olympic semifinals
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Without any clear-cut explanations for why a team that dominated its way through a World Cup two years ago suddenly looked so disjointed and ineffective at the Tokyo Olympics, plenty of outside theories have floated around.

Here is a look at some of the top theories and our ratings (10=super likely, 1=unlikely) of how likely it is that each actually contributed to the USWNT’s loss:

The USWNT’s roster was too old: 5/10

It’s easy to look at the average age of the USWNT’s roster at the Olympics and point to that as the problem. All of the USWNT’s primary attackers are over the age of 30, except Lynn Williams, who is 28. The USWNT’s two biggest clutch players, Carli Lloyd and Megan Rapinoe, who were heroes in previous tournaments, are 39 and 36, respectively, and both are clearly a step slower than they once were.

But there’s other important context. First, being the oldest team in a tournament hasn’t hurt the USWNT before. The USWNT had the oldest squads at both the 2015 World Cup and the 2019 World Cup, and they won both. It’s lazy to say that a team isn’t good just because it’s old.

More importantly, the USWNT’s problem in Japan wasn’t its older players. Did Lloyd and Rapinoe have good tournaments? No. But how do you explain, for instance, the uncharacteristic struggles of Samantha Mewis, the 28-year-old central midfielder who many analysts have considered to be the best player in the world?

– Andonovski: USWNT will do anything to medal

Basic execution of the soccer fundamentals — like dribbling and passing — was sloppy, and that happened all the way up and down the roster. As Rapinoe — the most honest and blunt player on the team — said after the tournament-opening Sweden loss, the U.S. was “doing dumb stuff, like not passing the ball, not trapping the ball.” After the loss to Canada, her assessment was nearly the same: “Too many errors from us, again. The space was there for us to play in, and we just couldn’t get into it — too many touches or an errant touch.”

To be fair, the Olympics is a particularly grueling tournament because of how few rest days the IOC gives players between games. Having some younger players to take on more minutes and workload could have helped, but with more substitutions available than normal, Andonovski went out of his way to rest his players as much as possible. As Alex Morgan said, the USWNT had the freshest players in the tournament due to the rotations.

Still, Andonovski may have found some benefit in bringing more younger players to the tournament — and then actually playing them — but it would’ve been less about their age than… (onto the next category…)

The selected players were too complacent: 7/10

When a team has won a World Cup in the unrelenting fashion the USWNT did in France in 2019, it would be tempting for any new coach to run it back. Andonovski already knew these players could succeed together in the pressure-cooker of a major tournament, but what the USWNT seemed to lack more than pure fitness was desire.

The players, of course, will tell you they wanted it. For the veterans, they wanted to go out on top as they (likely) end their careers. For the younger players, they wanted to win their first medal in an Olympics. Yet it’s hard not to notice that the one field player who had a standout performance in the entire tournament was Lynn Williams, who notched a goal and an assist against the Netherlands.

Williams is playing in her first major tournament, one of the only players on the entire roster to do so. Under both Andonovski and previous coach Jill Ellis, Williams has not been the USWNT’s best attacking player — there’s a reason why she didn’t make any tournament rosters under Ellis, and why she originally made the Olympic roster as an alternate — and yet she played in Japan like she had a lot more to prove than anyone else.

That also raises the question why a player like Catarina Macario didn’t have the chance to play a bigger role in the tournament, even as a substitute. She’s talented and has proven herself to be capable of competing at the highest level, but she was only named to one matchday squad (the 6-1 win over New Zealand). If Andonovski had told her he trusted her to take over a game and do her thing, could she have helped unlock an opponent like Canada, which wasn’t committing to attacking in that fateful semifinal? We’ll never know.

With the Olympics being pushed back a year, Andonovski arguably had the time to break away from merely copying-and-pasting the World Cup roster and finding some players hungry to make their mark. At a minimum, it would’ve pushed the veterans harder as they fought to keep their spots going into the tournament, but it could’ve yielded some more dynamic options for Tokyo.

Andonovski rotated the starting line-ups too much: 10/10

In any tournament where a bunch of games are packed into a short period of time, a coach has one of two ways to approach it: consistency for the sake of chemistry, or rotation to keep the players fresh for each game. Andonovski clearly leaned toward rotation. Perhaps he was mindful of his roster’s age, or perhaps he just knew that playing a game every three days is a lot for players of any age.

Rapinoe wondered after the semifinal if rotation was a problem, but then dismissed it.

“It just didn’t click for us,” Rapinoe said. “I don’t know if it was just roster rotations a lot. I know it’s a tough tournament, trying to save people. But our bench is deep as hell, so I don’t think we can really put it on that. I can’t quite put my finger on it: I’ve tried, I’ve been thinking about it the whole tournament. We just didn’t have that juice that we normally do.”

If the concern about rotations is a drop-off in quality, Rapinoe was right to dismiss that. The substitutes for the USWNT are as good as its starters, and the USWNT never loses individual quality by rotating players. But as a collective, that’s a different story, and the USWNT’s biggest problem in Japan has seemed to be a lack of chemistry.

While we can’t see what’s happening behind the scenes to build that chemistry, we do know that there wasn’t much consistency in games. Look no further than an unprecedented nine goals called offside throughout the tournament as tangible proof that the players just weren’t on the same page.

“There was a lot of rotation, so in a way I think we had the freshest legs of any team,” Alex Morgan said after the semifinal. “But they [other teams] also had the consistency in the line-ups. So, that’s what you have to weigh in tournament like this. It’s very different than a World Cup. There were more substitutions than there’s ever been, so it’s very different.”

It’s unclear if Morgan was hinting was that the higher amount of allowed substitutions meant that less rotation should have been needed; it would have been a good point, too. With five substitutes, it probably wasn’t necessary to introduce five different starting line-ups in five games. If Andonovski had stuck to more consistent starting line-ups, he could have made better use of his substitutions to make sure impactful players were coming into games, instead of just taking players off for the sake of it.

The USWNT got too distracted by its lawsuit or politics: 0/10

Anyone who claims that the USWNT struggled in Japan because they were too distracted by social justice is someone who clearly does not watch the USWNT and has never watched the USWNT. These are people that should be laughed at or ignored.

– Men’s union: U.S. Soccer sends “corrosive” message
– USWNT file appeal after equal pay lawsuit

The USWNT has historically been one of the most dominant teams in sports, period, and they’ve done it all while constantly fighting for better treatment and better pay. Seriously, there’s a whole book about it, but you don’t even have to look back any further than the 2019 World Cup. The USWNT filed their equal pay lawsuit only months prior, Megan Rapinoe got into a fight with Donald Trump (which he started, for some reason), and both the USWNT and Rapinoe crushed their competition.

The evidence is clear: the USWNT has won more tournaments while caring about social justice than not.

The USWNT didn’t lose enough before the Olympics: 7/10

Fans of the USWNT are very accustomed to winning. So accustomed, in fact, that a single loss is enough to set off calls to fire a coach, which has created a culture where it can be difficult for coaches to experiment and take the risks that result in losses.

But losses are good. Jill Ellis has said that losing games before the 2015 World Cup allowed the team to win the trophy, and she thinks the USWNT probably wouldn’t have gone as far without those losses. It’s easy to see why, too: defeats force a hard self-examination of weaknesses and shake away any feelings of complacency.

Olympics medal tracker | Schedule

Coming into the Olympics, Vlatko Andonovski had never lost a game with the USWNT, and the team was riding a 44-game unbeaten streak when it arrived in Japan. Where, then, was any serious introspection going to come from? What would have prompted players to look in the mirror and dig a little deeper? It appears the answer is that those things went missing in Japan.

The lack of crowds hurt the USWNT’s mentality: 6/10

Americans will follow the USWNT anywhere. During the 2019 Women’s World Cup in France, Reims, a quaint city known for its champagne production and gothic architecture, looked like an American resort town at the start of the tournament. As soon as the USWNT left, the throngs of Americans did too, following the USWNT from city to city across France. The players admitted that every match in France, except the quarterfinal against France, felt like a home game.

But no Americans have followed the USWNT to Japan.

Due to the pandemic, the USWNT’s games have been mostly played in empty, dead silent stadiums. The players have insisted it’s not a big deal — they’ve gotten used to it during the pandemic. But the truth is, if fans were allowed in Japan, no other team would have as much support as the USWNT. It’s hard to measure the impact of it, but ask any athlete: fans add that extra push, and for the USWNT, that extra bit of swagger to put on a show.

“With it being a major tournament without fans, we know that energy and everything is gonna from us,” Rose Lavelle said during the group stage. “It comes from every single player and staff member, so that’s something we’ve been emphasizing too.”

But it clearly hasn’t worked, and there’s no substitute for a stadium of mostly USWNT fans. The lack of fans may only be one piece of the psychological difficulty of the past 16 months during the pandemic, but it’s an important piece.

The world has “caught up” to the USWNT: 4/10

If the question were whether there were other teams in Japan capable of beating the USWNT, then there is a 100% probability that it was a factor in the USWNT’s loss: teams like Sweden and the Netherlands were favorites, along with the USWNT, before the tournament even started. But if the question is whether the world has “caught up,” meaning the field has been somehow significantly more difficult than in years’ past, that’s a lot less likely.

The fact is, women’s soccer has been growing at a rapid pace for several years now, and there have been very good teams capable of beating the USWNT all along. The 2019 Women’s World Cup was easily the most difficult Women’s World Cup in history — more teams looked like title contenders than ever — and just because the USWNT won it in impressive fashion, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t tough.

Sure, it’s possible the USWNT’s failure to reach the gold medal match in Tokyo will signal a new shift in women’s soccer where the USWNT never reaches a final again. But that seems highly improbable unless the USWNT disbands tomorrow.

In truth, there are several teams that can win any major tournament, and that number is indeed growing, but the USWNT reaching a final is never a given. It wasn’t a given in 2016, when the USWNT got knocked out in the quarterfinal at the Rio Olympics, and it wasn’t a given in 1995, 2003 or 2007, when the USWNT didn’t reach the finals of those World Cups either.

The USWNT’s run wasn’t actually that terrible: 5/10

Looking at the USWNT’s performances, rather than the results, is certainly disheartening. By the players’ own admissions, they looked bad, both as a collective group and as individuals. For fans, the team on the field was unrecognizable at times.

But reaching the final four of a major tournament, isn’t terrible, all things considered. The USWNT has only failed to get that far once in the team’s entire history, and that was at the 2016 Olympics with a loss in the quarterfinal. That arguably puts the Tokyo Olympics in line with the USWNT’s expected results.

“This was my eighth tournament, and they’ve all been different,” Lloyd said after the loss to Canada. “They’ve all had a different storyline, they’ve all started and finished in a different fashion, some have been pretty, some have been ugly, and some we’ve just scraped by. This one, we didn’t get by.”

It’s easy to forget that the USWNT won a World Cup in 2015 playing rough soccer for most of the tournament. The first few games looked so bad that pundits and former USWNT players were questioning why coach Jill Ellis hadn’t been fired already. The USWNT grew into its later games — something this USWNT couldn’t do in Japan — but the USWNT was far from invincible.

Sometimes in past tournaments, the ball seemed to bounce the USWNT’s way, even when they weren’t playing well. The USWNT had no such luck in this go-round, and sometimes luck makes all the difference.

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