USWNT devoid of chemistry as Olympic gold chance slips away

Coming into the Olympic semifinal against Canada, no one knew which U.S. women’s national team was going to show up. Was it going to be the one that showed exuberance and tenacity against the Netherlands to win a penalty shootout after a 2-2 draw? Or was it going to be the team that got walloped 3-0 by Sweden to open the tournament?

Unfortunately for American fans who woke up early Monday to watch, it was the latter, and the U.S. lost 1-0. It shouldn’t have been a surprise, though: This subpar version of the USWNT is the one that has appeared for nearly the entire tournament. With the exception of breakout performances by Lynn Williams and Alyssa Naeher against the Netherlands, the USWNT never looked remotely like the team that won a World Cup just two years ago.

Canada came out exactly as the USWNT should have expected. It was physical, gritty and sought to close down the spaces the USWNT loves to play in. Canada’s four-player diamond midfield especially managed to overrun and overwhelm the USWNT’s central trio. But the Americans also made it a lot easier for Canada. They were static in their off-the-ball movement and rarely found the space to create outlets; and when they did try to the move the ball, they did it sloppily.

The U.S. was mostly the more dangerous team in the second half, generating an expected-goals stat that perhaps should have been enough, but it took far too long for it to get into the game. The U.S. didn’t register its first shot on goal until the 65th minute.

Canada only found the breakthrough when Tierna Davidson fouled Deanne Rose in the box, which was a bit ironic since Davidson was one of the USWNT’s most solid players in this rough tournament. Abby Dahlkemper normally would have started, but she struggled in all of her previous games.

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To say that Canada’s penalty was against the run of play doesn’t quite do it justice. Canada had barely even entered the USWNT’s final third by that point and had zero legitimate scoring chances. But Canada’s game plan didn’t require that it attack a ton; it just needed to keep the USWNT at bay and hang on, which is exactly what it did.

Naeher’s injury in the 20th minute could have been a major problem for the Americans had they advanced or gone to penalties — she practically carried the team in its quarterfinal against the Netherlands — but it ultimately didn’t matter. The USWNT, which is known for its attacking prowess and so-called embarrassment of riches up front, struggled to score goals in Japan. Now the spotlight is on coach Vlatko Andonovski.

Remember, the women’s Olympics soccer tournament is a relatively forgiving one: Many of the best teams aren’t there, coming in third in the group stage was enough for teams to advance, and finishing anywhere in the top three is enough to earn a medal, which is some measure of success. But the history and expectations of the USWNT demands coming out of the group first and reaching the gold-medal match — neither of which happened.

That might be forgivable if there were an explanation for it. When Jill Ellis led the USWNT to its worst-ever finish at the Olympics in 2016, she had just won a World Cup and opted to start turning over her roster immediately to give players experience before the next World Cup. That team still dominated its group and lost to Sweden in the quarterfinals on penalties after a tight back-and-forth match.

But Andonovski brought a run-it-back roster of players who had won the 2019 World Cup, players who looked like a shell of their former selves. Not only did the USWNT’s results not live up to expectations, but the performances themselves were mostly bad, with the Americans being shut out three times and winning just once in regulation time.

There will be plenty of time for this poor showing to be examined. Was the roster too old, as some critics said? Were the USWNT’s tactics stale and not up-to-date with the evolution of the women’s game? Were the players unprepared? Perhaps, and those would all fall on Andonovski.

But more than anything, this USWNT just looked utterly devoid of chemistry. The players weren’t clicking. They weren’t aggressive. They weren’t having fun. They weren’t what the USWNT has been for pretty much the team’s history.

Asked why the USWNT didn’t look like itself in the tournament, Andonovski seemed to be as much at a loss as everyone watching from afar.

“I don’t really know,” he said. “I think, first and foremost, we came out and competed hard, the players gave it all, tried hard, and 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, or what caused it to look the way it did. So, we’re going to have to dig pretty deep to find everything out.”

At that point, Megan Rapinoe jumped in.

“If I could just say something, I just think the players have a lot to look at ourselves about,” she said. “It’s not like, ‘Oh, we didn’t play better,’ and getting on each other, but we need to perform better, period. We don’t have juice because the ball’s banging off our shins and we’re not finding open passes and doing the simple things.”

“We can deep-dive into analyzing, and I know we will, but at the end of the day, there’s all the preparation you can do and all the tactics, and then there’s everything else, and that’s what we were missing. You can’t put a name on the ‘everything else,’ but it’s just getting it done from players, from all of us.”

Rapinoe’s point is well-taken, but it’s also Andonovski’s job to make sure the players are mentally prepared and respond accordingly if they aren’t. He chose the rosters and he chose the lineups that were supposed to perform. But he looked as rattled as the players did in that opening loss to Sweden, and the USWNT hasn’t looked the same since.

If Andonovski was the wrong hire, then the scrutiny will fall on Kate Markgraf, the general manager who made the decision. Was it a mistake hiring a coach with no international experience? Was the search thorough enough? Were enough candidates considered?

There is still bronze medal to play for, of course, but winning a bronze — if the USWNT can manage that — will only have minimal impact on the fallout to come.

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