The curse of Manaus claims another victim as the United States fall to Sweden 1-1 (3-4) on penalty kicks. It was not a match for the faint of heart and indeed many a supporter will be feeling more than just disappointment; heartbreak is a better word for it. A tightly contested first half saw the United States knocking the ball around and creating chances but Sweden kept the pressure low and threat of a counter attack high. In the second half, it was that counter attacking threat off of an errant ball by Allie Long that gave Swedish substitute Stina Blackstenius an opportunity and she took it, making the score 1-0 in the 62’.
The United States pushed Sweden for much of the game and in the 78’ took a ruthless opportunity while a Swedish player was down on the field to equalize the match through Alex Morgan. Though the United States would dominate possession and chances for the rest of regulation time and extra time, the match went to penalties. In penalties, misses by Morgan and Christen Press negated a wonderful save by Hope Solo and the Swedes move on to the quarterfinals.
Not only did the United States not become the first team to defend their World Cup title at the Olympics, this is the first time they’ve failed to reach at least the semifinal. There will be questions galore and an inquisition, whether fair or not, on Jill Ellis’ management.
The curse of Manaus
Some may argue that this is a cop out and that’s certainly a valid argument but the numbers don’t lie. In the 2014 World Cup, six out of the seven teams that played in Manaus went on to lose their next match. It has to be said that there was sharp inequality in the preparation between the United States and Sweden, who stayed in the same spot from their final group match to the quarterfinal.
This isn’t just an excuse; it showed in the speed of play and off-the-ball movement of the United States. Players who are normally much quicker on the touch like Long and Morgan Brian dribbled too much in this game and dwelled on the ball for too long. That’s a telltale sign that the movement off the ball is static. For stretches of the match, the United States couldn’t break out of their one-dimensional flank play. It took almost 25 minutes into the match for the United States to even attack down the left flank in any substantive way. Against a team like Sweden who don’t put much pressure on the ball, keep their lines tight, and compress space, that’s just not good enough.
There’s no doubt that the United States have the best fitness and recovery crew in the world led by Dawn Scott. But even Dawn Scott couldn’t keep the United States from looking like they were digging to the very bottom of their respective tanks to keep going.
Back to the drawing board for USA fullbacks
Even a broken clock is right twice a day. That’s the easiest way to sum up Kelley O’Hara and Meghan Klingenberg’s performances in this tournament. In the first match against New Zealand, they exemplified the very best parts of Ellis’ system. Pushing high in the attack and tracking back solidly in defense. But against France, they showed how easily the system is vulnerable to becoming too narrow when the fullbacks are pinned in their own defensive third.
Klingenberg was rested against Colombia but O’Hara demonstrated in that match that she does play fullback like a converted forward. That’s not a compliment. Both players showed how prone they are to getting caught out and getting caught out of position against Sweden. Equal blame falls on Ellis for experimenting with this system and on O’Hara and Klingenberg for not playing responsibly.
The United States will have three long years in the build up to their next major tournament, the 2019 World Cup in France. Odds are that Ellis will be scouring her player pool and the NWSL for more natural wingbacks. Or maybe she’ll scrap the system altogether and return to the much more conservative defensive system that earned the United States a 540 minute shutout streak and a World Cup winners medal.
Sometimes if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
The myth of American spirit/magic doesn’t win matches
The comparative advantage the United States has always had over the world is neither their tactical dominance nor is it their technical brilliance. It’s that indomitable American spirit, the fighting might to take games to the edge of disbelief. To take games to the brink of reality and fan temperament, to somehow go from the depths of nothing and turn it into something glorious. The will to win in the 122’ minute against Brazil or the 123’ minute against Canada. That’s always been the American advantage over the technical skill of a team like France or the tactical structure of Germany or the samba flair of the Brazilians.
With bated breath a fan base enraptured and more than accustomed to magic waited for another trick to arrive. It never did. Sweden won that game tactically; Pia Sundhage outsmarted her old friend, Jill Ellis. It is Sweden, not the United States, headed to the semifinal matchup. Maybe this is the lesson that the United States needs to learn as a program in order to move forward, in order to start bringing through more Mallory Pughs, in order to stop leaving things to magic and indomitable will when the number one team in the world should be relying on technique and tactics and skill.
Only time will tell if this lesson has been truly learned. And time is something this United States program will have in heaps as the long wait for France 2019 begins.