USWNT Suffers Most Surprising Loss in Its History—Now What?

The U.S. women's soccer team should take Friday's stunning quarterfinals loss to Sweden as an opportunity to reinvent itself.

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Aug 12 2016, 8:27pm

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

The United States women's soccer team had been so dominant for so long that its continued success had become an assumption. They had been to four Women's World Cup finals in the seven editions that tournament has existed, winning three and losing one on penalties. And, until Friday, they had been to every Olympic final, winning four of five. They had never placed worse than third at a major tournament.

That's why Friday's stunning elimination to Sweden on penalties after a 1-1 tie in the quarterfinals of the Rio Olympics came as such a shock. The United States, as a nation, hasn't been programmed for its women's team falling until the last hurdle. If they don't win, they're supposed to at least come close. But really, they're supposed to win.

According to the NBC broadcast—and if you know the inner workings of the United States Soccer Federation, this is quite plausible—the scheduling for a post-gold medal "victory tour" was already in the works, just as there had been tours after the London Games and last year's Women's World Cup trophy in Canada, and even after the runner-up place at the 2011 World Cup in Germany. Their supremacy has been legislated into being through Title XI and cemented by the mindset of a progressive country that has no qualms about collectively rooting for a women's team.

The USWNT's style of play evolved during the Olympics even if the results weren't always impressive. Photo by Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

But talent, riches, and resources have held this team back in certain ways. The bountiful crops of prospects falling from a well-funded college game ensured that the program never really had to evolve or reinvent itself. And the sufficient and full-time salaries of the established senior national team members—the envy of their peers the world over—ensured that the best players could carry on for as long as they wanted without the distraction of making a living on the side.

And so followed win upon win. This, in turn, enabled the women's team to gain traction in the cluttered American sports mainstream and begin to generate real revenue—of which the players would like a bigger share in an ongoing labor dispute with the USSF. Their resources got even bigger. The annual calendar grew thick with extended training camps the world over. The staff mushroomed. Anything to sustain the success.

The wheels of the women's national team machinery churned on without cease, because they won and won.

Now they haven't. And not only have they fallen short; they have come nowhere close to a fourth straight Olympic title. So we wonder what impact this will have.

All of that winning kind of stunted the team's natural growth. Because while the women's game rapidly grew more technical, the U.S. for years kept doing what it had always done: play a direct and muscular style that maximized its fitness advantages. It wasn't until Pia Sundhage—in charge of Sweden for this upset, ironically—left and was replaced by Tom Sermanni as head coach in 2013 that any kind of reform was attempted. But the ossified and all-powerful hierarchy of veterans within the team resisted and he was ousted a year away from the World Cup.

Jill Ellis, of a similarly progressive mind, soon learned that she didn't have time to make wholesale changes before the big tournament. And she didn't get a chance to build the kind of modern, pressing and possessing team she had envisioned until a slew of veterans retired and preparations began for these Olympics.

But she persisted. And at times in recent months, the progress was immense as the Americans suddenly played a swashbuckling passing game and overwhelmed opponents with their technique and precision. This makeover was badly needed. Even though results were slow in coming at these Olympics—only the 2-0 win over New Zealand was comfortable; the 1-0 victory over France was not, and Colombia tied the U.S. for the first time ever, 2-2—an upwards curve was clearly being charted.

Yet this team remains suspended somewhere between the past and the future. In the likes of winger Tobin Heath and young attackers Mallory Pugh and Crystal Dunn, it contains ball magicians of heretofore unknown skill. But the team remains reliant on the brawn and directness of reigning world player of the year Carli Lloyd. And against Sweden, a team with little attacking sophistication and a record of just two goals in three games during the group stage, the U.S. often reverted to pounding crosses into the box from the flanks, rather than trusting its new and improved way.

Goalkeeper Hope Solo accused the Swedes of cowardice, but if their strategy had been cynical, the Americans had allowed it to happen by playing to their opponents' strengths.

You could argue that the undoing of the Americans was their going back to the way they had always done things, the means by which they had achieved their ends for a quarter of a century, until the past few months, anyway.

What the fallout of this cataclysmic failure will be is hard to say because it's unprecedented. If U.S. Soccer retains faith in Ellis and her futurism, this loss might prove constructive and allow her to remake her team further. If it doesn't, and panic clouds judgment, insisting on going back to the way things had always been (successfully) done, this rebuild might prove a step forward to take two back.

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