USA starting XI: Hope Solo, Kelley O’Hara, Julie Johnston, Becky Sauerbrunn, Meghan Klingenberg, Allie Long, Morgan Brian, Carli Lloyd, Tobin Heath, Alex Morgan, Mallory Pugh
Sweden starting XI: Hedvig Lindahl, Linda Sembrant, Nilla Fischer, Jessica Samuelsson, Lisa Dahlkvist, Caroline Seger, Sofia Jakobsson, Fridolina Rolfo, Elin Rubensson, Lotta Schelin, Kosovare Asllani
It was a shocker of an elimination - Sweden, struggling so hard to advance, the United States riding mostly comfortable on top of their group. But there were nagging fears, some niggling worries, as the U.S. struggled in the midfield and fought for finishing touches in the box. All those fears culminated on Friday afternoon as they struggled to score against Sweden despite the lion’s share of attacking, and it ultimately came back to bite them.
The United States opened their quarterfinal game against Sweden in promising fashion. They pushed Sweden all the way back into their defensive third and basically kept them there, but the finishing was lacking in the box.
Tobin Heath was deeply involved with the attack early on, with almost all the U.S. pressure going through her for the first 20 or so minutes. Morgan Brian was pushed higher up the field and she and Heath were both bright spots in the midfield, combining and carrying the ball through Sweden’s lines. Unfortunately, though Heath was certainly a threat on the right with the ball at her feet, her delivery couldn’t quite find heads or feet on the box, either through crosses or corner kicks.
Slowly but surely Mal Pugh worked her way into the attack, which helped open up the Swedish defense a little bit. Once Long stopped weighting the right side of the field as heavily with her distribution, Pugh cut inside often, and kept picking at the seams of the defense until she found through balls for Carli Lloyd and Alex Morgan. The more Pugh was involved, the more likely it seemed Alex Morgan was going to score.
Sweden managed a few counters, with the most dangerous in the 9’ when Lotta Schelin was almost in by herself, with only Meghan Klingenberg angling to cut her off. Schelin couldn’t quite get into a good spot to shoot, which gave the U.S. defense enough time to get back into shape.
Sweden also pressured on set pieces, with the U.S. continuing to lose the odd player in the box. Kelley O’Hara needed to do a better job staying tight with Caroline Seger on an early Sweden corner kick, as well as do better at finding targets with the long ball. Solo at least looked much steadier than she did against Colombia, and punched out a couple of balls with conviction.
The half ended with one last big chance as Pugh once again fed a player running through, this time Lloyd. Hedvig Lindahl was quick off her line and made a big stop on Lloyd’s shot, keeping it at 0-0.
After the half, the U.S. went right back to pressing, with Heath still attempting to get the ball into attacking position but finding that final pass wanting. Carli Lloyd was off on lot of things, including her finish and her free kicks. She started to fade out of the game and was engaging with the ball high enough on the pitch to make much of a difference. The team was overly reliant on O’Hara and Heath on the right, with not enough movement up the left.
Sweden refused to be pulled out of their half despite patient play by the U.S. back line and stayed behind the ball, working for turnovers. They got increasingly physical until a 57’ yellow card to Schelin, who was probably paying for the fouls of her teammates, but helped rein in some of the challenges.
Sweden broke the deadlock first, scoring in the 61’ on a breakout long ball to Blackstenius, who caught it in stride and finished far post past Hope Solo.
Jill Ellis almost immediately made a sub, putting Crystal Dunn on for Allie long in the 65’. Dunn went into an attacking mid role that allowed her to drift wherever she needed, though she leaned towards the right side.
Then another quick sub, this time bringing on Megan Rapinoe for Kelley O’Hara in the 72’. Rapinoe went to her accustomed spot on the left while Pugh pushed right, and the team went into a three-back with Lloyd dropping deeper into the midfield.
Rapinoe was okay out there, and she did provide the set piece service for which she was specifically brought along. But she faded quickly and wasn’t nearly the impact player on the left she needed to be, leaving it to Pugh on the right to carry a heavier load, which she did fairly admirably.
Then came the equalizer in the 78’ from Alex Morgan, who pounced on a bad bounce in the Sweden’s box and finished it to make it 1-1.
Unfortunate ball of the Swedish defender, setting up Alex Morgan perfectly for the shot. pic.twitter.com/mxQ1gZ39q9— The Equalizer (@EqualizerSoccer) August 12, 2016
From that point on the United States continued to push and continued to lack a finishing touch. Dunn and Pugh managed to create a lot of little chances around the box, but there was no one on the end of the ball, no ruthless Lloyd rip or sublime through for Morgan.
Regulation finished at 1-1, forcing the teams into extra time. Sweden hung tough with the United States, that much-vaunted American fitness not necessarily helping them much. Tobin Heath shifted to right back to put four in the back line again, a move that Ellis practiced before in a friendly against Colombia in April. However it removed a key attacking piece from the midfield, especially with Brian now pulled deeper in the field.
The U.S. kept trying to switch the ball long for Pugh, who consistently controlled it and centered the ball into the box, but couldn’t find feet.
Rapinoe got subbed out in the 100’, having exhausted her reserves after approximately 30 minutes. Many questions from this tournament will be asked, and primary among them will be the rostering of Rapinoe over other, fitter players. Christen Press came on for Rapinoe, and started off with a great feed to Morgan, who was boxed in and left unable to turn and shoot.
Sweden pushed back, finding some attacking rhythm, but still the U.S. continued to hem them in. They made their final sub - part of the new rules allowing a fourth in extra time - in the 114’, with Pugh out injured, and Lindsey Horan in.
Then, almost, the tiebreaker, with Lloyd in on goal, but called back - wrongly - for offside. Almost immediately, Lotta Schelin returned the favor at the opposite end of the field, but was also called back for offside. Both calls were wrong.
The last gasps came at the very end in the 120’, when Alex Morgan seemed like she would resurrect the magic of Alex Morgantime, carrying the ball deep into the six and getting off a left-footed shot from a tough angle. It was not to be; the ball went into the side netting. Then Morgan Brian won the ball back in stoppage, got it to Lloyd, who carried it through the mid and found Press hanging out wide right, only to see her shoot it over the goal.
And so to penalties they went.
Things got off on the wrong foot as Lindahl saved Alex Morgan’s first shot.
Lotta Schelin: scored.
Lindsey Horan: scored.
Kosovare Asllani: scored.
Carli Lloyd: scored.
Then a glimmer of hope as Solo guessed right and blocked Linda Sembrant’s shot.
After that, Morgan Brian and Caroline Seger both put their shots away.
It came back to Christen Press, who ran up to the ball - and skied it high.
One last chance. Solo waited out Lisa Dahlqvist, pacing to the side, calling for a change of gloves. She stood in net, and Dahlqvist calmly finished.
Sweden advances, the United States is knocked out in their worst-ever Olympic finish.
Is this what happens when you try to transition your roster? Ellis spoke multiple times about building this roster with an eye on 2019. But it was still an incredible roster that wasn’t that caught up in the changeover between veterans and youth. What they really needed was to unjumble their midfield, which would help link up to the forwards, for Rapinoe to either be fitter or to have rostered someone who could’ve been that impact player, and for O’Hara and Klingenberg to have a better day on the wings. A lot pieces moved well...until they fell into a pit around the goal.
Players, coaches, and fans alike will probably be asking themselves a lot of questions about this game and the roster overall. For now we can focus on this one game, where several players were unable to convert during the run of play and a valuable midfielder like Heath was stuck out of position for huge chunks of the game. Normally the U.S. manages to gut their way through games like these, but the cruelty of sports had to turn on them at some point.