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.
U.S. Soccer in 2016: USMNT and USWNT year in photos
Klinsmann fired, replaced by Arena
Jurgen Klinsmann was fired after the USA's World Cup qualifying loss in Costa Rica, bringing an end to more than five years in charge. He was replaced by Bruce Arena, who returns to the bench after coaching the USA from 1998-2006.
USMNT vs. Costa Rica, November 15
The dejected faces on Bobby Wood, left, and John Brooks say it all, as the U.S. drops to 0-2-0 in the CONCACAF World Cup qualifying Hexagonal following a 4-0 loss and embarrassment at Costa Rica.
USWNT vs. Romania, November 13
Morgan Brian gets a congratulatory hug after her converted penalty kick, which helped the U.S. women close out 2016 with a 5-0 rout of Romania at StubHub Center in Carson, California.
USMNT vs. Mexico, November 11
Mexico players celebrate Rafa Marquez's late winner, which delivered a 2-1 triumph for El Tri over the USA to open the CONCACAF Hexagonal. It ended years of U.S. domination over Mexico in Columbus.
USWNT vs. Romania, November 10
Crystal Dunn congratulates Christen Press on one of her three goals as the USA handled Romania with ease, winning 8-1 at Avaya Stadium in San Jose, California.
USWNT vs. Switzerland, October 23
Carli Lloyd gets a hearty welcome after scoring on a long-range blast to kick-start the U.S. in a 5-1 rout of Switzerland in Minneapolis.
USWNT vs. Switzerland, October 19
A new-look U.S. women's team routed Switzerland 4-0 at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah, with Samantha Mewis (3) at the center of the celebrations after scoring the final goal of four-goal second half.
USMNT vs. New Zealand, October 11
Julian Green is congratulated by captain Michael Bradley after scoring the opener, but the U.S. was forced to settle for a 1-1 draw vs. New Zealand in the last game before the CONCACAF World Cup qualifying Hexagonal kicks off.
USMNT vs. Cuba, October 7
Chris Wondolowski scored a goal and assisted on another, as the USA continued World Cup qualifying preparations by beating Cuba 2-0 in a historic friendly in Havana.
USWNT vs. Netherlands, September 18
Carli Lloyd celebrates her goal that kicks off the scoring for the USA in a 3-1 win over the Netherlands at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.
USWNT vs. Thailand, September 15
U.S. women's national team co-captain Carli Lloyd happily signs autographs after scoring a hat trick in a 9-0 romp over Thailand in Columbus, Ohio.
USWNT vs. Thailand, September 15
Megan Rapinoe kneels for the national anthem ahead of the U.S. women's national team's match vs. Thailand, continuing her public protest in line with that of San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
USMNT vs. Trinidad & Tobago, September 6
Fabian Johnson, Christian Pulisic and Sacha Kljestan celebrate during a 4-0 win, which cemented the USA's place atop its World Cup qualifying group and a berth in the CONCACAF hexagonal.
Hope Solo's USWNT contract terminated
Following the USWNT's Olympic loss to Sweden, Hope Solo lashed out at the opposition, calling them "cowards" and drawing the ire of U.S. Soccer. The incident pushed the federation over the edge, and it terminated the goalkeeper's contract while suspending her six months–meaning any chance at reinstatement won't be possible until February.
USWNT vs. Sweden, August 12
The long and stunned faces say it all, as the U.S. women try to comprehend a penalty-kick loss to Sweden in the Olympic quarterfinals. The 4-3 PK defeat after a 1-1 draw marked the earliest ouster for the U.S. women in a major competition ever.
USWNT vs. Colombia, August 9
Hope Solo lets a Catalina Usme free kick slip through her hands and legs in a shocking 2-2 draw. The USA still won its Olympic group despite the slip-up.
USWNT vs. France, August 6
Carli Lloyd scores the only goal in a 1-0 win over a stout France side to punch the USA's ticket to the knockout stage at the Olympics.
USWNT vs. New Zealand, August 3
Carli Lloyd celebrates her goal in the USA's 2-0 win over New Zealand in their opening match of group play at the Olympics. Alex Morgan doubled the USA's lead in the second half.
USWNT vs. Costa Rica, July 22
Christen Press and Carli Lloyd celebrate an easy 4-0 win, which sent the U.S. on its way to Rio with an unbeaten record in 2016.
USWNT vs. South Africa, July 9
Hope Solo salutes the crowd after posting the 100th clean sheet of her career in a 1-0 win in Chicago. Crystal Dunn scored the lone goal.
USMNT vs. Colombia, June 25
For a second time at Copa America, the USA falls to Colombia, with Carlos Bacca's goal the difference in a 1-0 result in the third-place match in Arizona.
USMNT vs. Argentina, June 21
Lionel Messi converts an incredible free kick to punctuate a dominant performance for Argentina against the USA in the Copa America semifinals.
USMNT vs. Ecuador, June 16
Goal scorers Clint Dempsey and Gyasi Zardes share a celebratory hug with Matt Besler in the Copa America quarterfinals, where the Americans held on for a 2-1 win and a place in the semis.
USMNT vs. Paraguay, June 11
Clint Dempsey celebrates his goal in a 1-0 win over Paraguay, which secured the USA's place in the Copa America knockout stage.
USMNT vs. Costa Rica, June 7
Bobby Wood caps a dominating first half for the USA in a must-win game vs. Costa Rica in Chicago at Copa America. Clint Dempsey, Jermaine Jones and Graham Zusi also scored.
USWNT vs. Japan, June 5
Co-captain Becky Sauerbrunn defends as the U.S. bounces back to shut out Japan 2-0 in a rain-shortened friendly in Cleveland.
USMNT vs. Colombia, June 3
James Rodriguez beats Brad Guzan from the penalty spot in Colombia's 2-0 win over the USA to open Copa America Centenario.
USWNT vs. Japan, June 2
Lindsey Horan heads the USA in front to cap a comeback from two goals down, but the Americans conceded in extra time to 10-woman Japan, settling for a 3-3 draw.
USMNT vs. Bolivia, May 29
Christian Pulisic scores his first international goal in the USA's 4-0 win over Bolivia in a final tune-up for Copa America. Gyasi Zardes scored twice, and John Brooks added one of his own in the triumph.
USMNT vs. Ecuador, May 25
Darlington Nagbe is hugged by Christian Pulisic after his 90th-minute volley delivers a 1-0 victory for the USA in a pre-Copa America friendly.
USMNT vs. Puerto Rico, May 22
Tim Ream scores the opening goal in the USA's 3-0 win over Puerto Rico in the first meeting between the two sides. Bobby Wood and Paul Arriola scored as well.
USWNT vs. Colombia, April 10
Julie Johnston, left, is mobbed after one of her two goals in a 3-0 USA win at Talen Energy Stadium in Chester, Pennsylvania.
USWNT vs. Colombia, April 6
Allie Long, left scores twice, and five other players score as well in a 7-0 rout of Colombia in East Hartford, Connecticut.
USMNT vs. Guatemala, March 29
Christian Pulisic, 17, makes his U.S. debut in a World Cup qualifier in Columbus, Ohio, becoming cap-tied to the USA. He was otherwise eligible for Croatia.
USMNT vs. Guatemala, March 29
Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore celebrate during a thorough 4-0 World Cup qualifying win, putting the USA's campaign back on track after the setback in Guatemala.
USMNT vs. Guatemala, March 25
There was no way through for DeAndre Yedlin and the USA during a 2-0 loss in Guatemala in what was a stunning setback in the Americans' World Cup qualifying campaign.
USWNT vs. Germany, March 9
The USWNT celebrates the inaugural SheBelieves Cup title after beating European powers England, France and Germany in succession.
USWNT vs. Germany, March 9
The U.S. celebrates Alex Morgan's equalizer vs. Germany in the SheBelieves Cup in Boca Raton, Florida. Samantha Mewis's winner a few minutes later cemented the Americans' overall triumph in the competition.
USWNT vs. France, March 6
Alex Morgan scores the game-winner in a 1-0 victory over France in the second game of the SheBelieves Cup in Nashville, Tennessee.
USWNT vs. England, March 3
Crystal Dunn is mobbed after her game-winning goal kicks off the SheBelieves Cup in a 1-0 triumph in Tampa Bay, Florida.
USWNT vs. Canada, February 21
Lindsey Horan celebrates her goal that helps the USA to a 2-0 win over Canada and a first-place finish in CONCACAF Olympic qualifying.
USWNT vs. Trinidad and Tobago, February 19
Alex Morgan celebrates one of her three goals that helped the U.S. clinch a berth in the 2016 Olympics after a 5-0 triumph in Houston.
USWNT vs. Puerto Rico, February 15
Crystal Dunn scores one of her five goals, tying a single-game U.S. record in a 10-0 rout to close group play in Olympic qualifying.
USWNT vs. Mexico, February 13
The U.S. needed a penalty kick from Carli Lloyd to beat Mexico 1-0 in the second match of CONCACAF's Olympic qualifying tournament.
USWNT vs. Costa Rica, February 10
Alex Morgan scores the fastest goal in U.S. history, netting 12 seconds into the USWNT's Olympic qualifying campaign and sending the Americans on their way to a 5-0 win.
USMNT vs. Canada, February 5
Jozy Altidore heads in the winner to secure a 1-0 win over Canada at StubHub Center to cap the annual winter training camp.
USMNT vs. Iceland, January 31
Steve Birnbaum heads in a late winner in a 3-2 victory over Iceland in the opening match of the year.
USWNT vs. Ireland, January 23
17-year-old Mallory Pugh scores on her debut, helping cap a 5-0 win for the USA to open the year. Carli Lloyd led the way with a hat trick, and Alex Morgan scored as well in San Diego.
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.