Where did it all go wrong? Why the USWNT fell flat in their pursuit of Olympic gold

Last Updated
Getty Images

It’s going to take some time before anyone has a full grasp on what went so desperately wrong for the U.S. women’s national team at the Olympics.

After entering the tournament as favorites to bring home the gold, the USWNT fell flat, with Monday’s 1-0 semi-final loss to Canada confirming their place in the bronze medal match against Australia.

Quite simply, the USWNT never looked like themselves in Japan. They entered having won 40 of their last 44 matches, and proceeded to win one of five games in regulation. They entered having last been shut out in 2017, and proceeded to fire blanks in three of their five games.

When asked what went wrong in his post-game press conference, head coach Vlatko Andonovski admitted: “I don’t really know.

“We’re going to have to go back and look, and dig a little deeper, and find out what didn’t go the way we wanted, or what caused us to look the way we did.”

Some of what happened may be inexplicable, while other developments were more foreseeable. Whatever the case, the USWNT is staring down a lengthy period of soul-searching, regardless of what happens against Australia.

Here is a look at a few reasons why the USWNT flopped at the Olympics...

Vaunted attackers can’t score

The six forwards Andonovski deployed at the Olympics are a formidable group, striking fear in defenders and causing different kinds of matchup headaches.

But at this Olympics, Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, Carli Lloyd, Tobin Heath, Lynn Williams and Christen Press have managed to combine for just three goals. Two of those – from Morgan and Press – came late against New Zealand with the outcome of the game long decided.

The USWNT didn’t create nearly enough offense from the flanks, where they so often find attacking joy. Full-backs Crystal Dunn and Kelley O’Hara, usually the team’s catalysts on the wings, combined for just six total successful crosses from open play all tournament.

Williams gave the U.S. a huge spark out wide, as she was second on the team with five chances created from open play and tied for the lead with four successful crosses, despite hardly playing in the group stage. Her effectiveness shined a brighter spotlight on the team’s other attackers, who did far less with much more playing time.

Carli Lloyd USWNT GFX

The lack of a consistent press clearly hurt the USWNT’s attack as well. So often the team’s best offense is a strong, coordinated high press, but for whatever reason – the condensed game schedule and heat certainly played a factor – the U.S. did not unsettle opponents with their press nearly enough at this tournament. 

There was also the issue of over-rotation, which we will return to in a moment.

Too many mistakes at the back

The USWNT has looked uncharacteristically vulnerable and unsettled in the back line at the Olympics. After conceding one goal in 12 games this year leading up to the Olympics, the U.S. has given up seven goals in five games in Japan thus far.

Sweden, in particular, ruthlessly exposed the U.S. in the opener, rampaging forward on the flanks and cutting apart the U.S. back line in a 3-0 win. Far too often, an opposing team’s forward turned up unmarked in the box, taking advantage of massive gaps between center backs and full backs.

The U.S. also struggled with midfield runners, while opponents targeted Dunn on the left side of the U.S. defense, with her teammates often failing to give her the support she needed as she was left on an island.

Abby Dahlkemper, usually one of the team’s strongest performers, looked lost at center back and was eventually benched against Canada for the far more effective Tierna Davidson.

Though she hardly put a foot wrong all tournament, Davidson was cruelly punished against the Canadians when she was a step slow to clear a ball in the box, allowing Deanne Rose to nip in and draw contact in what ended up as a penalty kick after a VAR review.

Jessie Fleming buried the ensuing spot kick along with the USWNT’s gold medal hopes.

Over-rotation harms U.S. continuity

Leading up to the tournament, there was a worry that the U.S. squad, particularly its forward line, was too old and not up to the challenge of such a condensed tournament in gruelling heat and humidity.

Those fears did not prove to be unfounded, as the team's age forced Andonovski into a heavy rotational system that didn’t allow his forwards to develop any kind of chemistry.

The most glaring examples came in the team’s two knockout-round matches. In both games, the USWNT made an attacking triple sub right near the 60-minute mark – moves that were clearly pre-planned and not responsive to what was happening on the field.

Vlatko Andonovski USWNT GFX

In fact, the U.S. was controlling the game in both instances they made a line change, bringing the team’s momentum to a halt. After the Canada match, Andonovski denied that his heavy rotation was harmful. 

"Not at all," he said. "We had really good rotations going on and I felt like the way we did, I don't think our pace was the problem at all."

In Andonovski's defense, the team's veterans had been playing so well leading up to the Olympics that he didn't have much choice but to include most of them in his squad. But finding a combination that clicked in Japan would've been a huge boost.

During the team’s victorious run to the 2019 World Cup, Morgan and Heath started six of seven games at forward, while Rapinoe started five of seven. Rose Lavelle and Julie Ertz both started all but one game at midfield.

At this Olympics, no such continuity was possible. In the end, it was costly.

Unable to overcome mental hurdles

The USWNT is renowned for its championship mentality. Over the years, no setback has been too great to overcome and no opponent has been too fearsome.

At this Olympics, though, that confidence was nowhere to be found.

“I think that we really need to look at ourselves and we need to perform better, period,” Rapinoe said. “We don’t have the juice, the ball’s banging off our shins and we’re not finding open passes and we’re not doing the simple things.”

Article continues below

From the start, the U.S. never looked like the world’s best team and the favorite to bring home gold. In many ways, the team never seemed to recover from the shock of their opener against Sweden.

Though Rapinoe attempted to shift the focus onto the U.S. players, some of the blame must again be directed toward Andonovski.

When one player has a bad tournament, she must shoulder most of the criticism. When the entire team essentially has five off games, the problems may indeed be systemic.