Even the replay required a second look, so slim was the margin that separated the United States from elimination at the Women’s World Cup on Sunday.
But there it was, if you squinted: years of work, weeks of games and almost three hours of world-class soccer reduced to a single computer-generated image, the ball microscopically over the goal line, and the United States fully, and unequivocally, out of the World Cup.
“We just lost the World Cup by a millimeter,” goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher said. “That’s tough.”
The decision was a stunning end in every possible way. That it gave Sweden a victory in a penalty shootout and a berth in the quarterfinals against Japan almost felt like an afterthought, though surely not to the Swedes.
Yet as they raced off into the corner, delirious in victory, there was so much else to process: soccer’s newfound reliance on technology and video review; the elimination of the United States, the two-time reigning champion ejected from its customary place at the peak of its sport; and the exit from the World Cup, for the final time, of the American star Megan Rapinoe, the athlete and activist who had hoped to go out a three-time champion but will instead fly home ruing her own missed penalty kick, a cruel twist of fate she labeled “a sick joke.”
The defeat may one day be seen as a watershed moment for women’s soccer, the moment when the United States, the most successful and most decorated team in the sport’s history, surrendered its decades of primacy once and for all. Close watchers of the sport have seen that moment coming for a while. Investments in Europe especially but elsewhere, too, have been narrowing that gap for years. Rising powers like Spain, England and the Netherlands — but also older ones like Sweden and Germany — no longer shudder at the sight of the Americans on the other side.
New challengers are emerging wherever one looks. Even if it loses on Tuesday, Jamaica will have advanced at least as far as the United States this year, as will three African teams, including Morocco, which played its first game in the tournament only last month.
That growth will only continue, while the United States navigates an awkward transition between a past of stars like Rapinoe and Alex Morgan and a future studded with talent but short on experience, tradition and championship pedigree. No U.S. team had ever failed to make at least the semifinals until Sunday. And for a few hours in the cold Melbourne night, it appeared the current team might yet make a championship run once again.
For hours, the United States and Sweden had circled each other like prizefighters painting a World Cup classic. They had pushed and shoved, taken shots and saved them, tested their nerve to the limit. And then, after two halves and two extra periods with no goals, they went to a penalty shootout to decide a winner. Yet they still could not be separated until the final shot gave Sweden a 5-4 edge on penalties.
Shot followed shot, save was matched by save, miss was followed by miss. And then Kelley O’Hara, the seventh American to step up to the spot, hit the right post with her attempt, and Lina Hurtig, the seventh Swede, sent hers low and hard to Naeher’s right.
Naeher got to the ball but could only parry it high into the air. As it began to descend, she saw, to her horror, that it was tumbling back toward her goal instead of away. Naeher reached back and swatted at it a second time. She was sure she had batted it clear, and sprung to her feet waving a finger at the referee to insist she had been successful.
Unsure if she was right, the players and the crowd held their breath. The French referee, Stéphanie Frappart, double-checked. The goal was given. The Swedes sprinted away. The Americans froze where they stood.
The tears flowed immediately. From Sophia Smith, the young forward who had missed a chance to win it for the United States, and from Rapinoe, who had sent her shot over the crossbar. Other players were soon crying, too, too many to count. The rest just stared off into the distance, or into the ground, looking, perhaps, for an alternate plane where what they had just seen had not happened.
“Unfortunately, soccer can be cruel sometimes,” Coach Vlatko Andonovski of the United States said. He may soon find out just how much.
This finish — eliminated in the round of 16 — will go down as the worst in World Cup history for the U.S. women’s national team, a forgettable denouement to a tournament in which the U.S. team won only once in four games, scored in only two of them, and only in its final game looked like the contender it believed itself to be.
Andonovski will surely get much of the blame for that. But it will be a shared grief for a team that never really found its footing, did not score nearly enough, and now will head home wondering what might have been.
Andonovski declined to discuss his future, saying it would be “selfish” to think about what the defeat means for him on such a devastating night. “I see the players in tears, and it hurts,” he said. “And that’s all I can think about.”
Smith, 22, and young stars like forward Trinity Rodman and defender Naomi Girma, will have more World Cups. Rapinoe, 38, will not. She announced before the tournament that this would be her last dance, and it will be her most frustrating. Reduced to a substitute, she had come on in extra time and searched, along with everyone else on both teams, for some moment of magic that would change the ending in their favor.
It could have been different. Naeher had kept the Americans in the game with steady work and a series of solid saves. At the other end, her counterpart, Zecira Musovic, had been even better: The Americans outshot Sweden by more than double, and had put 11 of those attempts on goal to Sweden’s one. But time and again, Musovic denied them, reaching out to parry stinging shots or dangerous chances. She pushed away a rocketed right-footer from Lindsey Horan in the 53rd minute and a close-range header from Morgan in the 88th.
Asked if she had played the game of her life — a common assessment from all sides — Musovic parried that, too. “It was a good game,” she said, “from all of us.”
Thanks to her efforts, and Naeher’s, the game seemed fated to a penalty kick shootout as early as the second half. Still, the teams pushed and probed on a night so tense that even the crowd fell silent for long stretches before it finally awoke in the closing minutes of extra time.
“It feels like a bad dream,” Morgan, one of the American co-captains, said. “I feel like we dominated, but it doesn’t matter,” she added, probably correct on both counts. “We’re going home.”
Sweden will move on to a quarterfinal against Japan and whatever might come after that.
The United States will pack its bags and head off into an uncertain future. Rapinoe will go, and others, including Morgan and defender Julie Ertz, might follow. They and their teammates will leave behind a World Cup that will be memorable, just as all of their previous trips have been.
This time, though, it will be not for what was won, but for what, on a cold night in Melbourne, was lost.
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