By Aimee Lewis, CNN
After a tense match, the sort which causes the stomach to churn, it is Sweden which progresses to the quarterfinals, stopping the two-time defending champion from achieving a historic third consecutive world title, with a thrilling penalty shootout victory in Melbourne on Sunday.
The match was decided by the video assistant referee (VAR), with referee Stéphanie Frappart – after reviewing the action – deeming that Lina Hurtig’s penalty had crossed the line despite the US’ Alyssa Naeher getting her hands to the ball and initially appearing to save it.
Sweden’s players joyously celebrated winning 5-4 on penalties, while there were tears from the US squad as its participation ended in the round-of-16, the earliest the US has ever departed a Women’s World Cup.
“So proud of the team, of the women on the field,” coach Vlatko Andonovski said afterwards. “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.”
With the score goalless after 120 minutes of play – 90 minutes of regulation time and 30 minutes of extra-time – the match had to be decided by penalty kicks.
Sweden’s Nathalie Björn was the first player to miss from the spot, giving Megan Rapinoe, who has now played her last major tournament for her country, the chance to put the US ahead in the shootout, yet Rapinoe – usually the most reliable of penalty takers – missed to give Sweden hope again.
Rebecka Blomqvist of Sweden and the US’ Sophia Smith proceeded to also miss from the spot. With the scores tied at 4-4, up stepped substitute Kelley O’Hara for the US and her effort hit the crossbar, presenting Hurtig with the chance to win it for her team.
Changing of the guard
The closer a team gets to achieving history, the bigger the expectations become, the more microscopic the focus on its every travail. The burden of becoming the first to win three successive World Cups ultimately proved too heavy, though there is some solace in defeat as this was the US’ best performance of the tournament.
The US has never before failed to reach the semifinals of a World Cup, so this will be a chastening experience for a country that has for decades been a standard-bearer in women’s soccer.
Four years ago, when it won its second successive title, the US was the dominant side of its generation, but times have changed and the sport has moved on.
Much has been written about the American squad’s struggles in this tournament. There was just one victory in the group stage and a goalpost came to the team’s rescue against Portugal, preventing the Portuguese from scoring a late winner which would’ve ended the US participation in this tournament.
Plenty has been said about the US’ mentality this last week, too – former player Carli Lloyd was particularly vocal in her criticism following the draw with Portugal – but to put this defeat down to the disintegration of the country’s famed winning mentality would be too simplistic.
“That’s our secret sauce, it’s the insatiable desire to win,” Rapinoe told CNN Sport before the start of the tournament. But defeat doesn’t mean the team lacked the desire to win. It did, however, lack the killer instinct of old, dominating Sweden – the US had 21 shots on goal, 11 on target – without being able to puncture its defense.
That goalkeeper Zećira Mušović was Sweden’s star player says much about the story of the match. That the Swedes only had three touches in the opposition penalty box in the first half and had its first shot on target, through substitute Sofia Jakobsson, in the 85th minute says much about how the winning team played. But it is Sweden which progresses to the last eight to face Japan on Friday. Sport can be brutal.
A painful loss
There were changes to the US team from the 11 that started against Portugal. In came Trinity Rodman and Emily Sonnett, the latter performing a crucial defensive role in midfield as Andonovski switched formation to a five-player midfield.
The new starters played the brightest in the first half and, as the game progressed, the US became more at ease in possession. Though, for a team ranked third in the world, Sweden did little to test the opposition.
Dominating possession and creating several chances – the majority of which fell to Rodman, who twice forced saves from Mušović with strikes from distance – the US had the better of the first half.
Captain Lindsey Horan came the closest to breaking the deadlock, her header from a corner hitting the crossbar in the 34th minute, which caused the US substitutes to rise to their feet on the sidelines.
It was a nervy game – as knockout matches on a stage such as this are – and the longer the match progressed, the more strained the occasion became.
Soon after the restart, Horan forced a fine close-range diving save from Mušović, and again Sweden’s goalkeeper came to her country’s rescue when she prevented Alex Morgan from scoring minutes from full-time with another stop from point-blank range.
In extra-time, Mušović stood firm, first against Morgan and then Smith, the latter trying to beat her at the near post in the 107th minute.
Yet, for all the possession, for all the endeavor, for all the attempts on Sweden’s goal, the US was not clinical enough, which was a problem throughout this tournament.
This being a knockout match, there had to be a winner, and so the game went to penalties; to luck, to nerve and to the most painful of losses for the loser.
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