By Issy Ronald, CNN
(CNN) — Disappointment is an unfamiliar emotion for the US when it comes to women’s soccer. This is a team that had not lost a Women’s World Cup match for 12 years, had never finished worse than third in the tournament, and was aiming for a historic World Cup three-peat, a near impossible feat never achieved in men’s or women’s soccer.
So when the US crashed out of this World Cup in the round-of-16, losing a dramatic penalty shootout against Sweden in Melbourne on Sunday, there was a stunned sense of disbelief, of it all simply being a “bad dream,” as its legendary forward Alex Morgan said.
Public figures sent consolation messages on social media, while the team itself – also mourning the impending retirement of iconic forward Megan Rapinoe and likely retirement of fellow stalwart Julie Ertz – huddled together on the pitch, before facing questions not previously asked of the US Women’s National Team (USWNT).
“You made this sport matter,” First Lady Jill Biden wrote on Twitter. “Today, you inspired us with your grit and determination. We are proud of you. Always remember that you encourage women and girls everywhere to show up and fight for their dreams.”
Meanwhile, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tweeted: “I’m forever proud of our #USWNT. This team will come back better and stronger, because that’s what American women do.”
It was almost a different story. The US dominated much of the match, with only desperate, brilliant saves from Sweden goalkeeper Zećira Mušović denying the Americans goals on two separate occasions during the second half of regular time. But the game ticked into extra-time and, when the additional 30 minutes failed to produce a winner, into penalties.
“We showed everything we could to win the game and, unfortunately, soccer can be cruel sometimes,” US coach Vlatko Andonovski said afterwards.
“So proud of the team, of the women on the field,” Andonovski said. “I know we were criticized for the way we played and for different moments in the group stage. I think we came out today and showed what we’re all about, showed the grit, the resilience, the fight, the bravery.”
‘Like a sick joke’
Even before this defeat, it had been a difficult tournament for the US as it limped through the group stages, winning once – against Vietnam – and drawing against the Netherlands and Portugal.
The US’ performance in that draw against Portugal prompted widespread criticism, for it was only the width of a goalpost that prevented a late Portuguese winner and the US from exiting the tournament in the group stages.
“Being able to come out of the group stage where we didn’t play our best and changing it into this kind of performance. This is what this team is going to be made of with so many young players coming through,” captain Lindsey Horan said after the Sweden loss, looking towards the future of the team.
“We entertained, we created chances, we didn’t score and this is part of the game,” she added. “Penalties, to be frank, they suck, they’re too cruel. I’m proud of every player that stepped up to take a penalty today, score or miss, it’s courageous to go take a penalty. I’m very proud of my team.”
As the young players emerge onto the world stage in the harshest cauldron imaginable, this defeat also marks the end of several iconic players’ international careers.
Two-time World Cup winner Megan Rapinoe announced her imminent retirement before the tournament began and came on as a second-half substitute against Sweden but missed her penalty in the shootout.
“It’s like a sick joke for me, personally. I’m like, ‘This is dark comedy, I missed a penalty,’” Megan Rapinoe told Fox Sports, as she was visibly emotional on the pitch afterwards.
“I still just feel really grateful and joyful, and I know it’s the end and that’s sad,” she added. “But to know this is really the only time that I’ve been in one of these [situations] this early says so much about how much success I’ve been able to have, and just how much I’ve loved playing for this team and playing for this country. It’s been an honor.”
Fellow two-time World Cup winner Julie Ertz also told Fox Sports afterwards, while fighting back tears, that she would probably never play for the USWNT ever again.
“It’s an emotional time. So it absolutely sucks, I mean, penalties are the worst. But it’s an honor to represent this team. I’m excited for the future of the girls,” she said.
It was the cruelest of defeats for the US after the penalty shootout went to sudden death and ended with the video assistant referee (VAR) determining that Lina Hurtig’s penalty had inched over the line despite US goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher initially appearing to save it.
“We just lost the World Cup by a millimeter,” Naeher told Fox Sports. “That’s tough.”
She added: “I’m proud of the fight of the team tonight. I think we knew that we hadn’t given our best in the group stage and we wanted a complete team performance. And the team came out, I thought we played great tonight. To come up short hurts. It’s going to hurt for a long time.”
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