USWNT loss to Sweden not about PKs, but game plans

penalty kick loss

by TOM SLATER

The smoke has now cleared. The hurt and disappointment still lingers for the United States Women’s National Team. Losing on penalty kicks is like that. It hurts. And it takes a long time to recover. And this one certainly will require a long time.

The Rio 2016 Summer Games will go down as the biggest failure ever for the program. These Summer Games are the first time the United States won’t medal in either the Olympic Games or the World Cup. It’s the first Olympics that won’t have the Americans in the final.

For the 18 women on the team and the coaching staff, the hurt will continue for a long time as the next World Cup cycle begins.

But what happens next is for another day. Let’s look at what happened:

Pia Sundhage had a good game plan: Hope Solo may not like it, but Sundhage came out with a plan against the Americans and it turned out to be a game-winner. Sundhage, who knows the Americans as well as if not better than anyone else in the world, had her team absorbing whatever pressure the United States threw at them. And at times it was eight attackers. But they made the US serve wide from 20-25 yards out and were able to control the air balls.

They played physical, especially in the first half. Goalkeeper Hedvid Lindahl helped out by three acrobatic saves that saved sure goals. After the Americans didn’t score in the first half, the Swedes began to attack a little more, but mostly on the counter attack.  It paid off just past the hour mark. Lisa Dahlvkist found Stina Blackstenius cutting through the United States defense and fed her with needle-threading through ball. Blackstenius slotted it home with Julie Johnston sliding on her heels.

The fact that Blackstenius was in the match was a forced decision by Sundhage, who subbed her in for an injured teammate in the 18th minute. As the match played on and the United States eventually drew itself level, Sundhage stayed with the counterattack plan until it fell to penalties.

Ellis’ plan didn’t work quite as well: Let’s start with not starting Crystal Dunn. She was by far the best player on the field for the United States in the second half. After she had a great goal and a setup against Colombia, she was hitting on cylinders. Her play could have ended the game early. As it was her flick on Heath’s serve helped set up Alex Morgan.

Then there was the Rapinoe substitution. She pulled O’Hara for Rapinoe with 18 minutes left in an effort to tie the game. Although that part worked, Rapinoe wasn’t effective. She had some really bad corner kicks and made a few bad decisions to shoot instead of pass. When the Americans did score, they were forced to put Tobin Heath at right back — who had a great first half. Heath ended up playing the rest of the game on the backline despite the fact that Ellis had Ali Krieger and Whitney Engen available. As far as strategy, the Americans needed to use their speed wide to get to end line and force Sweden defenders to turn their backs on their marks. When they did that, they were successful in putting pressure on the Swedes. When they floated the long balls, it was easy pickings for the Sweden defenders.

Hope Solo ended her weird tournament on a bad note. She was the target of “Zika, Zika” and boos from the Brazilian crowds for all four games she played in. She single-handedly won the match with France with her acrobatic saves. She single-handedly helped Colombia draw the Americans allowing a howler to go through her legs and then misjudging a long cross.

But ending it with a parting shot of calling the Swedes ‘a bunch of cowards’ after the match wasn’t the smartest thing the goalkeeper has ever done. Of course, she has a history of spouting off after a big-game loss. Her candid comments in the aftermath of a World Cup loss to Brazil in 2007 nearly cost Solo her national team spot. Ironically, it was Sundhage would healed feelings and have her a second shot at the USWNT in 2008. At age 35, Solo might have put the ending notes on her international career.