BRASÍLIA, Brazil — An hour after the earliest departure ever for the U.S. women’s soccer team from a major tournament, the Swedish bus was still parked at the Estádio Nacional Mané Garrincha.
No, really, it was. The Swedish team’s giant bus was still idling inside the stadium only a few dozen feet from where the U.S. players, stunningly defeated 4-3 on penalty kicks in the Olympic quarterfinals, performed the autopsy on a 1-1 game in which the U.S. dominated possession and prevailed in shots (27-6) and shots on goal (6-2). Most of the U.S. speakers were muted in the wake of elimination.
“I don’t feel like it should have gotten to penalties to begin with,” said Alex Morgan, “But when it did I still felt very confident in Hope [Solo, the U.S. goalkeeper] and the players selected. Obviously I didn’t convert mine, and being the No. 1 penalty taker that’s important to boost the confidence of the team. So I feel like I failed in that today.”
U.S. co-captain Carli Lloyd shook her head. “It’s always hard to swallow losing in PKs. It’s gonna hurt. But we’ve got to hold our heads high. This team is not going to crumble. We’re going to work that much harder.”
U.S. coach Jill Ellis knew the U.S. had created more scoring opportunities, but she wasn’t going to criticize Sweden coach Pia Sundhage for her gameplan.
“The game is the game,” said Ellis. “Tactically, that’s a coach’s prerogative, a coach’s choice. They look at their personnel and determine a gameplan based on that. To take us to penalty kicks is probably a great strategy, because then it becomes a bit of a crapshoot.”
And then Solo spoke. Boy, did she ever.
When asked about her thoughts on the game, Solo said this:
“I thought that we played a courageous game. I thought we had many opportunities on goal. I think we showed a lot of heart. We came back from a goal down. I’m very proud of this team. But I also think we played a bunch of cowards. The best team did not win today. I strongly, firmly believe that. I think you saw American heart. You saw us give everything we had today.”
Why was Sweden a group of “cowards” in Solo’s eyes?
“Sweden dropped off,” she said. “They didn’t want to open play. They didn’t want to pass the ball. They didn’t want to play great soccer. It was a combative game, a physical game. Exactly what they wanted and exactly what their gameplan was. They dropped into a 50. They didn’t try and press. They didn’t want to open the game. And they tried to counter with long balls. We had that style of play when Pia was our coach. I don’t think they’re going to make it far in the tournament. I think it was very cowardly. But they won. They’re moving on, and we’re going home.”
Told of Solo’s comments, Sundhage said, “It’s O.K. to be a coward if you win.”
Meanwhile, Swedish goalkeeper Hedvig Lindahl was annoyed with what she perceived as gamesmanship before Sweden’s last penalty, when Solo asked for a new pair of gloves. “What she did,” Lindahl said, “was an act of panic.”
So what to make of all this? Solo’s comments are not necessarily factually incorrect. Did the Swedes park the bus? Reasonable minds can disagree, but it’s an accurate description, and it worked. Sundhage designed a game plan for her players to stay in a low block, absorb U.S. pressure and try to strike on the counterattack. And wouldn’t you know it, Swedish sub Stina Blackstenius converted on the break in the 61st minute to put Sweden ahead 1-0. (Morgan would equalize in the 76th minute.)
But is cowardly too strong a word for what Sweden did? Yes. It’s not like we don’t see such tactics on a fairly regular basis in this sport, and the onus is on the attacking team to break down the defense.
Finally, were Solo’s comments lacking grace and a sense of the Olympic spirit? Yes, they were. I’m convinced that they reflected her honest opinion, but they didn’t have to be said.
Ultimately, the uproar over Solo’s comments will suck all the oxygen away from the real reasons why the U.S. finds itself out of a major tournament for the first time ever at the quarterfinal stage.
One big factor was a total lack of precision by the U.S. in front of the Swedish goal. When Christen Press launched her spot kick over the bar on the fifth and final penalty kick, it was only a microcosm of the U.S.’s biggest problem all day: Failing to put shots on frame. There’s a reason those 27 shots only boiled down to six shots on goal.
As Morgan said, “I feel like today our problem was not even hitting the frame. We didn’t even really test the goalkeeper as much as we should have. I could count on all the attacking players at least one or two chances that didn’t hit the frame. I think that hurt us.”
You could also question Ellis. Once Sweden scored, she brought on Crystal Dunn for Allie Long to spark the U.S. attack, and that’s exactly what Dunn did, bringing energy and creativity to the team. Knowing that Sweden was going to pack it in from the start, what was her thought process on starting Long instead of Dunn in the first place?
“Aerial presence [of Long] is one. Fatigue was one,” Ellis said, noting that Dunn had played 90 minutes in the heat and humidity of Manaus on Tuesday. “Allie played limited minutes in the previous game. So I think it’s a combination of that. When you put it together it’s got to be a 90-minute gameplan or even a 120-minute gameplan. I thought [Dunn] would be a trump card coming in.”
And while no U.S. player was saying the referees determined the game, Lloyd said she was blindsided when the referee ruled out her apparent extra-time goal for what she was told by the officiating crew was offside. Replays showed Lloyd was onside.
“I thought it was a goal,” Lloyd said. “I was in shock when the sideline ref put up her flag.”
In the end, the officiating crew of New Zealand’s Anna-Marie Keighley made the exact same mistake on the ensuing play at the other end, with Lotta Schelin’s apparent goal for Sweden being wrongly disallowed for offside.
“What are you going to do?” Lloyd asked with a shrug.
And so the U.S. went out against a Swedish team that had lost 5-1 to Brazil in this tournament, a Swedish team that had sleepwalked through a 0-0 tie to China, and yet a Swedish team that always seems to raise its game against the Americans.
The streak also stays alive: In six tries, the reigning Women’s World Cup champion has yet to win the Olympic title the following year.
“It’s been a busy couple of years,” Lloyd said. “That’s why no one has won back-to-back. You put all your time and effort into winning a World Cup, and the busy year we’ve had, it’s been a lot for everybody.
“But in 2019 and 2020, if I don’t walk away with gold medals I’m going to be very disappointed," Lloyd continued. "Of course this is emotional. Of course it sucks. I’ve shed some tears. Probably will shed some more tears. But we will rise again. And this moment will not define this team. We have a lot more to go. Soccer is just continuing to grow in our country, and we have to just continue to ride the wave and get back with our NWSL teams. And that’s that.”
That’s that. With a bag over her shoulder, Lloyd walked out of the mixed zone, right past Sweden’s parked bus. It was pointing toward Rio de Janeiro.