MELBOURNE, Australia — The rest of the world has finally caught up to the United States.
The once-dominant Americans crashed out of the Women’s World Cup on penalties after a scoreless draw with Sweden in the Round of 16 on Sunday. It was the earliest exit ever for the four-time tournament champions.
A shootout in the 1999 World Cup — with a much different outcome — supercharged the U.S. team’s prominence atop the sport globally. The Americans beat China on penalties in front of a sellout crowd at the Rose Bowl and Brandi Chastain doffed her jersey in celebration.
Except for some desperate energy in its last match, this U.S. team appeared uncharacteristically timid and disorganized throughout this World Cup. The two-time defending champions squeaked by in the group stage with just a win against Vietnam and disappointing draws against Netherlands and Portugal.
The Americans have fallen victim to growing parity in women’s soccer. Former powerhouse teams like the United States, Germany and Brazil were all sent home early while Jamaica, Colombia and first-timers Morocco surpassed expectations.
“I think it says a lot about the growth of the game,” defender and former UNC standout Crystal Dunn said. “I think so many people are looking for us to win games 5-0, and World Cups.
“We should be proud that those days aren’t here. We, as members of the U.S. women’s national team, have always fought for the growth of this game globally, and I think that is what you’re seeing.”
After a bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympics and now the early exit from the World Cup, coach Vlatko Andonovski’s future with the team is uncertain as it prepares for the next big tournament, the Paris Games next year.
Andonovski took over the job for Jill Ellis, the former NC State assistant who led the Americans to their back-to-back World Cup titles in 2015 and ’19. He has gone 51-5-9 during his time with the team.
“I never came into the job, never came into the locker room with the mindset that I wanted to do something to save my job,” Andonovski said on Sunday, clearly shaken. “I was always focused on doing a good job, doing my job in the best possible manner to prepare this team for the challenges they have in front of them, and to prepare them to represent our country.”
In addition to a stronger level of competition, the United States also struggled with inexperience.
The United States brought 14 players to the World Cup who had never played in the event. Indeed, 12 of them had never played in a major tournament.
The changes were part of a U.S. youth movement after the disappointing Tokyo Games. Andonovski focused his attention on developing young players like Sophia Smith, Trinity Rodman and 18-year-old Alyssa Thompson.
One player, midfielder Savannah DeMelo, had never appeared in a national team match when she was named to the World Cup roster. She appeared as a substitute in a send-off match against Wales in San Jose before starting in the first two World Cup games.
Smith, the U.S. Soccer Player of the Year for 2022, had a good start to the tournament with two goals against Vietnam but went scoreless the rest of the way. She missed her penalty attempt against Sweden along with Megan Rapinoe and Kelley O’Hara.
The only other scorer for the team was co-captain Lindsey Horan, who also had two goals.
“Even though it didn’t end up the way we wanted, it’s a huge experience for some of these young players,” Andonovski said. “There’s a group of players that will make a mark in the future.”
Rapinoe, the outspoken star of the 2019 World Cup known for her iconic victory pose, wasn’t the same game-changer she once was. At 38, and after a pair of World Cup titles and an Olympic gold medal, her role had diminished. She announced before the tournament started that it would be her last World Cup.
After the match defender Julie Ertz also said it was likely her last time wearing the U.S. jersey.
It was also clear the United States was missing several important players.
Mallory Swanson, the team’s top scorer this year, tore her patella tendon in an exhibition match with Ireland in April. Becky Sauerbrunn, the team’s captain, announced in June that she was unable to get over a foot injury in time for the tournament.
Dynamic forward Catarina Macario, hailed among the future stars of the team, tore her ACL last year playing with French club Lyon and didn’t recover in time.
In the end, however, the United States struggled most with its identity. It could never muster the confidence of teams past — including the legendary ‘99ers.
“All we want to do is be successful, be able to uphold the legacy that this team deserves. We failed at that this time,” said forward Alex Morgan, who like Rapinoe was playing in her fourth World Cup. “But I’m still hopeful with the future of this team. I still stand by that. This game is evolving, the game is getting better and that’s not going to change. It’s only going to continue.”