The U.S. women’s national team entered the Olympic group stage as clear gold medal favorites.
But after three games, they appear a diminished force with wounded pride, staring down a second straight medal-less tournament.
After a shocking 3-0 defeat to Sweden to open the tournament, the USWNT rebounded with a 6-1 win against New Zealand before a dull 0-0 draw against Australia on Tuesday closed out Group G.
The USWNT had not been shut out since 2017 heading into Tokyo 2020, but they have now been kept off the scoresheet twice in six days.
Defensively, there are also renewed questions after some unexpectedly shaky displays.
So heading into a difficult quarterfinal matchup against a free-scoring Netherlands team who netted 21 goals in their three group games, here are four reasons the U.S. has not been at their best so far at the Olympics...
Killer mentality is missing
Sweden came out in the opening game and punched the U.S. in the mouth, attacking with all guns blazing and scoring a deserved opener midway through the first half.
Mentally, the USWNT has not appeared to have recovered yet.
Rather than punch back, the U.S. continued to let Sweden take the game to them and never managed to mount a legitimate challenge.
It was a major surprise, given the fearsome mentality this group of American players has developed over a decade-plus of winning. Oftentimes, opponents will be so overawed by the USWNT that they effectively are defeated before the game even begins.
At this Olympics though, that has not been the case. Even New Zealand, clearly the weakest of the four Group G teams, came at the USWNT with no fear and very nearly scored on several occasions in the first half before the U.S. wore them down after the break with their superior fitness.
In some ways, the Australia display was just as worrisome as the Sweden game. The USWNT got the result they needed, but did so by playing for a draw. That is not the all-conquering USWNT we have come to know over the years.
Vlatko Andonovski's team has been reactive, not proactive in the Olympics so far. That will have to change if they are to win gold.
Stars missing in action
There have been plenty of collective issues for the U.S. thus far, but on an individual level, some of their stars have simply been below standard.
Abby Dahlkemper made a dreadful start to the tournament against Sweden and New Zealand before she was rotated out against Australia. Normally one of the world’s top center-backs, the Manchester City star now appears in real danger of being benched for the rest of the tournament in favor of the more impressive Tierna Davidson.
Crystal Dunn has been oddly quiet as well, which could be more a result of the team’s collective problems controlling games. Dunn normally gets forward on a regular basis from her left-back position, but her attacking influence has been muted as the U.S. has been forced to focus more on defending than usual.
Further up the field, Sam Mewis, last year’s U.S. Soccer Female Player of the Year, has been well below her usual standard, completing a paltry 59 per cent of her passes so far.
Mewis was hooked at halftime against Sweden, came on as a second-half substitute against New Zealand, and produced a turnover-filled performance against Australia before being removed in the second half.
In attack, Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe and Tobin Heath have all shown flashes, but it is safe to say they will all have to do more if the USWNT are to turn things around.
USWNT unable - or unwilling - to press
The U.S. is the best team in the world at turning defense to offense thanks to its feared press. At the Olympics so far, though, that high pressure has been mostly missing in action.
Head coach Andonovski could be wary about burning his team out, with tight turnarounds between games and sweltering heat in Japan not conducive to a style that requires consistent sprinting.
Personnel may also be a factor, with the U.S. relying on forwards mostly over the age of 30. The team’s two youngest attack-minded players, Catarina Macario and Lynn Williams, have been used sparingly thus far.
Whatever the reason for its absence, it is clear that the lack of a consistent press is harming the USWNT’s ability to generate scoring chances.
Perhaps Andonovski will be forced to rotate his squad more in order to squeeze more out of his players. Right now, the offensive status quo simply is not cutting it.
Andonovski falling short in first major test
Leading into the Olympics, Andonovski won 22 and drew one of his first 23 games in charge of the USWNT, the best start for a coach in program history.
But in Japan, Andonovski and his staff have been exposed in ways they never were in their first two years in charge.
Sweden coach Peter Gerhardsson put together a masterful game plan that caught Andonovski completely flat-footed, as the Swedes turned the tables on the USWNT and used their press to great effect, cutting off any route to goal.
Throughout the group stage, Andonovski has failed to find a way to get full-backs Dunn and Kelley O’Hara involved in the attack, instead seeing the duo surprisingly relegated to more defensive roles.
The aforementioned lack of a press has also hampered the USWNT in ways the head coach perhaps did not plan for.
Andonovski cannot be entirely blamed for his conservative tactics against Australia, given that a draw was as good as a win, but the idea of playing for a tie is anathema to this group of American players that has grown accustomed to winning every time they step on the field.
The pressure is now well and truly on the 44-year-old, who must find a way to utilize his world-class side better or risk a humiliating early exit in his first major test as USWNT coach.
For more on the USWNT's chances at the Olympics and to hear from guests such as Hope Solo, subscribe to Goal's new podcast, 'All Of Us: The U.S. Women's Soccer Show', wherever you listen to your podcasts.