Games

Analysis | The USWNT looked more like itself vs. Sweden. But soccer can be cruel.

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Soccer’s cruelty was summed up Sunday in Australia by the literal thinnest of margins, when the U.S. women’s national team crashed out of the World Cup just as it was starting to reclaim its dominant identity.

As Alyssa Naeher parried away Lina Hurtig’s decisive penalty kick mere millimeters after it crossed the goal line, giving Sweden a 5-4 shootout win after a 0-0 draw, the United States — a four-time World Cup champion that had never finished worse than third — was ousted in the round of 16.

Going into the match, such a result would have been anything but unexpected: The U.S. squad limped to a 1-0-2 record in the opening round, failing to win its group and drawing a Sweden team that had rolled to three straight victories. But what made the Americans’ exit so difficult was the return to form over the preceding 120 minutes, during which the United States outshot its opponent 21-7 and controlled 50 percent of the possession (compared to 33 percent for Sweden, with 17 percent in contest).

For the first time at this World Cup, Coach Vlatko Andonovski’s team looked the part of a contender. The tempo on the ball improved. Players attacked with urgency. The tactics were correct. Yet it was all for naught because of a heroic performance from Swedish goalkeeper Zecira Musovic, three errant penalty kicks and a near-dream of a save from Naeher that, instead, is bound to keep her up at night.

USWNT tactical tweaks vs. Sweden pay off


Lineup vs. Portugal (4-3-3)

Lineup vs. Sweden (4-2-3-1)

Lineup vs. Portugal (4-3-3)

Lineup vs. Sweden (4-2-3-1)

Lineup vs. Portugal (4-3-3)

Lineup vs. Sweden (4-2-3-1)

After three underwhelming group-stage performances, including a 0-0 draw with Portugal on Tuesday that nearly eliminated the United States even earlier, Andonovski made the formation tweak those games demanded and swapped out his overrun 4-3-3 for a more disciplined 4-2-3-1.

With attacking catalyst Rose Lavelle suspended for yellow card accumulation, the U.S. coach inserted Emily Sonnett as an additional defensive midfielder next to Andi Sullivan. Captain Lindsey Horan, previously deployed alongside Lavelle in an attacking midfield, roamed as a lone playmaker between wingers Sophia Smith and Trinity Rodman.

The impact was immediate. A U.S. attack that had become too reliant on the left side of Crystal Dunn, Horan and Smith was rebalanced, with 11 final third entries coming on that side along with 10 on the right and 20 in the central channels. Center back Naomi Girma operated under clear instructions to look downfield — she connected on 12 of 22 long balls, when no one else attempted more than eight — stretching Sweden’s shape and opening space to build through midfield. The off-the-ball movement was more fluid and the combinations were crisper, especially in the first half.

Emily Sonnett, Andi Sullivan excel for USWNT

No longer outnumbered in deep midfield, Sullivan bounced back from an up-and-down group stage and delivered her best performance of the tournament, winning the ball repeatedly and playing with poise under pressure. Her newfound influence was exemplified in the seventh minute, when she collected the ball in her own end, evaded the Swedish press and pinged a switch to Horan to spark a U.S. attack. Knowing Sonnett had defensive midfield covered, Sullivan made a late run toward the top of the box and finished the sequence by firing a shot wide — a miss, yes, but promising pressure that pinned back Sweden.

That said, the formation change wouldn’t have done much good without Sonnett rising to the occasion. Despite being an eight-year national team veteran logging her third major tournament, Sonnett had never been called upon in a match of true consequence until she entered late against Portugal. (The 29-year-old appeared in group-stage blowouts at the World Cup in 2019 and the Olympics in 2021, and made a cameo in the bronze medal game at the Tokyo Games.)

All Sonnett did was pace the United States with 89 percent passing accuracy while playing a position she has rarely filled on the international level. In addition to supporting Sullivan, she also provided cover for right back Emily Fox to pinch inside and jump into the attack. Case in point: When Fox did just that in the 17th minute, making an inverted run into the box, Sonnett drifted to the right and promptly snuffed out the ensuing Swedish counterattack.

Past USWNT mistakes resurface

All of that tactical progress didn’t make a difference for a U.S. team that couldn’t slip a shot past Musovic (11 saves). With Andonovski’s tenure likely coming to an end following the worst U.S. finish in its 16 major tournament appearances, we’ll never know if this team was about to unlock the right combination and tear through the rest of the World Cup — something coach Jill Ellis and the 2015 team did on their way to the title after a similarly bumpy group stage.

So what went wrong? Once more, Andonovski’s substitution strategy didn’t pay off. Roundly criticized for only making one swap in the 1-1 draw with the Netherlands, Andonovski again made a single sub through 90 minutes Sunday (bringing on Lynn Williams for Rodman, who had been battling an illness). The United States never lost control, but its early dominance gave way to a more back-and-forth affair as fatigue settled in.

Although Alex Morgan came close to a winner in the 89th minute when Musovic steered away her header, the game had been begging for Andonovski to take off the veteran, shift Smith to center forward and bring on Alyssa Thompson or Ashley Sanchez as a creative left winger. When Morgan finally came off in extra time, Andonovski instead turned to 38-year-old veteran Megan Rapinoe, who followed her group-stage struggles with more errant touches and wayward set-piece services. As a final indictment of Andonovski’s approach, Rapinoe and fellow substitute Kelley O’Hara both missed in the shootout — an unfortunate footnote to their stellar international careers.

Ultimately, though, the Americans were undone by their inability to win their group. Rather than rest players for the group-stage finale, they had to play Lavelle against Portugal and lost her to a suspension. Rather than face 54th-ranked South Africa in the round of 16, they drew No. 3 Sweden. If the United States had delivered the performance we saw Sunday against nearly any other opponent, it would be in the quarterfinals. But a margin for error was a luxury this U.S. team surrendered when it sleepwalked through the group stage — and didn’t wake up until it was too late.



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