by TOM SLATER
The year in women’s soccer was as diverse as the women playing the game. There were victories and defeats – and even a few draws in there. There were personality players galore, great moments and things that just made you shake your head.
In an effort to look back on 2016, Empire of Soccer lists the top 10 moments in in women’s soccer. While only choosing 10, there are bound to be moments left out. Not everyone will agree with this list. In fact, many probably won’t. And that’s ok.
Today, we’ll look at the number one soccer moment of 2016.
After romping through the Olympic Qualifying in early 2016 and staging a successful #SheBelieves Tournament in February, the United States was primed to punctuate an unbeaten 2016 year with yet another gold medal in the Rio Summer Olympics.
There was no question in anyone’s minds. Winning a medal was virtually a birthright for the women. They have always won a medal since 1996 when soccer became an Olympic sport. Four of five times it was a gold medal with the one silver coming in 2000.
The smart money was on the US women to become the first country to win the World Cup and Olympics in back-to-back years.
After a couple of shutout victories over New Zealand and France, there were no red flags. Even when the United States ended group play with a less than impressive 2-2 draw with a Colombian team they destroyed two months earlier, there was no cause of concern. Not really. So Hope Solo was less than awe-inspiring when she allowed two goals on free kicks that many deemed savable. The Americans were through to the knockout round anyway.
But waiting there was a confident Sweden, coached by former U.S. coach Pia Sundhage. And Sundhage had a plan. A good one.
Sundhage, whose Sweden team drew with the United States a year earlier in the World Cup, knew her team couldn’t compete with the Americans in a wide open game. So she came up with the best chance for her team to advance. She had them “park the bus.”
The veteran coach had her Swedish side defend in numbers and stay very organized. The Swedes allowed midfield possession and depended on pressure near their own goal to counter the Americans talent. Relying on the counter attacks and set pieces, Sundhage’s strategy began frustrating the Americans, especially when golden United States’ opportunities were just off or deflected away.
Sweden struck first on a well-executed counter attack in the 61st minute when substitute Stina Blackstenius scored against the run of play. The US answered in the 77th when Alex Morgan took advantage of a deflection and scored from 10 yards.
Both Lloyd and Morgan had sterling chances to win the game in regulation but couldn’t finish and ultimately it cost the Americans.
Overtime led to nothing and the teams went to penalty kicks. Both teams made three straight. After Sweden connected on its fourth kick, Christen Press sent her shot off the cross bar. Lisa Dahlkvist beat Hope Solo to clinch victory.
The fallout was more than immediate. Solo, as seems to be her wont, couldn’t give the Swedes and Sundhage their due without sounding like a sore loser.
Her quote minutes after the game:
“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 game plan was. … 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.”
Solo was suspended and her federation contract terminated. Her future is murky at best. The goal she allowed in the penalty kick shootout may be the last shot she faces in a US jersey.
In reality, this team was a flawed one. Even though coach Jill Ellis had begun a youth movement during qualifying, this was not a smooth transition. The attacking midfield spot was uncertain. Where would Mallory Pugh, Press and Crystal Dunn play? The interaction between Lloyd and Morgan wasn’t quite there either during the Summer Games.
And then there was the Megan Rapinoe issue. Injured during the World Cup victory tour, Rapinoe was working hard to rehab her ACL injury and it would be a close call for her to be on the final Olympic roster. She was close but not 100 percent but Ellis chose her over Heather O’Reilly anyway. She was cleared to play just three days before playing Sweden and was only good for 30 minutes or so.
Rapinoe came on in the second half and needed to be subbed out early in extra time, citing many to blame Ellis for wasting a sub.
The disappointment for missing out on what many considered a sure thing – and in the quarterfinal round – will take a while to get over. There are no real tournaments on the horizon and World Cup qualification isn’t the long drawn out process for women as it is for men.
Ellis has already begun looking to mold the team for the 2019 Women’s World Cup. Younger players like Andi Sullivan and forgotten ones like Lindsey Williams and Allie Long may be fixtures in the US lineup in year to come.
But the sting of the national team’s failure in the early stages of the Olympics is what most will remember about 2016.
Here are the other stories of the year: