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What happened: USA’s Olympic quarterfinal loss to Sweden not down to a single culprit

A lot of things, big and small, went into the worst ever Olympic finish for the United States

Olympics: Football-Women's Team-1st Round Group G-United States (USA) vs New Zealand (NZL) John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

So the United States women got knocked out of the Olympics way earlier than anyone predicted by a Swedish team that did not look good at all in the group stage. But it happened, just as Pia Sundhage planned it: the low block, the frustration of the U.S. attack, the quick counter, the chance glimpsed and taken. In the end, Sweden made the most of their attack and the United States didn’t, and that’s that.

After taking a little time to wallow, now we dive into the many issues that added up into the totality of failure. No one single thing caused the loss, and many of the issues leading up to the loss could at least be explained at the time they were happening.

Here are some of the key issues that contributed to the loss.

Tactical problems on the field

As we’ve seen (and has been noted here) plenty of times before, by pushing so aggressively on the flanks, it leaves a gap in the midfield. That’s compounded by the decision to use Carli Lloyd in the 10 role. For all her notable abilities, she’s really more a withdrawn forward than a true midfielder. So, we can debate the personnel choices for the midfield (should Brian play deeper? Should Long have gotten so many minutes? Should the team roster a true defensive midfielder?) all we want, at the end of the day the team was set up in a de facto 4-2-4, and that’s always going to make it tough to diversify the attack through the middle. What’s more, the US has played around with this a lot in the past few months, which is odd for a coach usually so committed to stability. Again, regardless of the specific merits of individual decisions, the lack of continuity and ability for players to settle into roles could certainly be partially at fault for the lack of fluidity on this part of the pitch.

Sweden was clearly aware of this problem, and their setup was designed to take advantage of it. While generally very defensive (often dropping 10 or 11 players behind the ball to defend deep and close off space for US runners), Sweden did seek to push forward in the center of the pitch. Rather than defending in straight lines, their strikers often pressed higher, doing everything they could to disrupt play through the center and shunt things toward the edges under pressure. This worked reasonably well, but was hardly an unqualified success. In the first half, especially, Morgan Brian got a lot of time on the ball high up the pitch, and both Heath and Pugh found a lot of joy drifting into more central roles. Later though, the US had more trouble, and grew increasingly frustrated, especially after tactical shifts left them a bit more awkwardly set up.

This is a real problem, and helps explain how the US could earn 27 shots, but make so little of them. Still, this wasn’t a primary factor in the gameday loss. They did a decent job of compensating for the limits of this system in this area. Going forward, this is probably the single biggest question in need of resolving, but was only marginally responsible for their elimination.

Individual players didn’t have good days

Even a bad game plan can be overcome by heroic effort and great execution. We didn’t really get either on the day.

The midfield was muddled, which isn’t really an unfamiliar state for fans to see. On any given day, you never know how Ellis is going to mix’ n match Carli Lloyd, Allie Long, Lindsey Horan, and Morgan Brian, and that lack of consistency certainly didn’t help them figure things out. You can define an individual player’s role as deeply as you want, but all that does is allow one person to execute their individual game plan without being able to take into account all the roles around her.

Lloyd had a bad game, punctuated by the moment that was supposed to be her BIG GAME moment, the kind of Lloydian goal that saves everyone’s bacon on the verge of getting burnt. But her go-ahead goal was called back, and so perhaps a reffing decision flipped that narrative. Other than that Lloyd was struggling. Allie Long and Morgan Brian did okay, but Brian got stymied as much as her teammates when she was asked to help carry the ball higher on the field and Long relied too much on finding Tobin Heath on the right.

Heath herself was still fairly creative and dynamic, but had the same problem as the rest of the attack, trying to pop the ball into the box and hoping that the resulting chaos would end up a net positive for the U.S. See also: Crystal Dunn and Mallory Pugh, who both had a better showing than most that day.

The team had trouble with the wingbacks too, with neither Kelley O’Hara nor Meghan Klingenberg playing to their full potential. Those two were supposed to be big factors in the attack and O’Hara was the reason for the perfectly fine Ali Krieger taking a seat on the bench. When the whole reason for your start is to get forward reliably, and that doesn’t happen in the game, then what separates you from the bench players is your work on the defensive side of the ball, and in that respect Krieger probably edges O’Hara.

So the entire team just about was not putting it together, and you could see it in the number of passes that went astray, the lack of steady possession and combination when they weren’t holding it in the back and looking for good options to restart the attack. Even that holding play from Sauerbrunn and Johnston was as much about not seeing good movement up the field as it was about patience. Bad movement off the ball and static players make for a hard time in possession and a lot of individuals trying to carry too much of the ball for too long in an attempt to get clear.

Roster decisions

Ellis reinserted Julie Johnston into the defensive line after missing the prior two matches due to groin tightness. With Johnston, the rest of back line comprised of Becky Sauerbrunn, Meghan Klingenberg, and Kelley O’Hara. One of the major differences between this back line and the famed “Department of Defense” back line from the 2015 World Cup is the benching of Ali Krieger.

This is not to say that Kelley O’Hara is a bad wingback, she’s usually not. But the problem is that the back line selected skewed too aggressive and offensive minded. Out of the four selected, only Sauerbrunn plays a stay-at-home game. Considering Sweden likes to counter attack quickly once they win the ball back, there’s not enough time for Johnston, O’Hara, and Klingenberg to retreat from their advanced roles. This, ultimately, showed in the lone goal conceded in the run of play by the United States. Krieger may not be the kind of push forward and pump balls into the box wingback that Ellis wants to play with but she brings steadiness to balance aggressive players like Johnston and Klingenberg. You know she’s going to be there and if you’re the United States, in retrospect, it’s hard not to wish she were.

The next interesting call was starting Tobin Heath on the right flank. Starting Mallory Pugh on the left flank isn’t necessarily a terrible move until you consider that you’re starting her there over Heath. Heath has developed into an exceptional player but it’s pretty common knowledge that she tends not to be as effective if she’s played on the right. Pugh isn’t her best on the right but she’s more present than Heath. Easy fix, right? Just have them swap flanks like the United States has done countless times before. Except, inexplicably, in the quarterfinals of the Olympics. It’s hard to say whether this was a coaching move or whether the players didn’t do it on their own. Either way, combined with the one dimensional flank play that accentuated their weakness on the right.

Heath had a wonderful tournament for the first two games against New Zealand and France in the group stage when she was played in her strongest position on the field. The decision to undercut the most in-form player on the team really hampered that form and ultimately has to go down as a questionable call.

Much has been made of the decision to bring Rapinoe. As things turned out, that looks like a bad choice. She didn’t contribute a huge amount, and Ellis was forced to burn a second substitution to take her off again after just 27 minutes. That constrained her tactical options, and led to the Tobin Heath, right back, experiment. So in looking for causes for the US exit, this is an easy one to identify. That said, you could easily imagine things otherwise. By the 60th minute, the US was aching for someone in Rapinoe’s mold, so bringing her on did make a lot of sense, and Ellis deserves some credit for willingness to shift the formation to accommodate her (going to a 3-5-2 until the US scored its goal). And they did come just inches away from scoring a winning goal before extra time. Still, in the game that actually happened, the US lost a crucial substitution in order to set up a system where Heath was required to struggle at right back, while arguably the best right back in the world sat on the bench.

What now?

In the short term, everyone returns to their NWSL clubs and waits for the two scheduled friendlies in September against Thailand and the Netherlands.

In the medium term, this may impact their ability to negotiate with USSF over their Equal Pay campaign - they’ve lost some momentum and can’t count on unified public support to make USSF look bad.

In the long term, the team will now probably begin the long, intense, messy process of really getting the roster turned over for 2019. Whether it’s Jill Ellis or another coach helming that process, it’ll definitely be interesting to watch.