For the teams left in this World Cup, there were mixed feelings when the USA went out, and not just because of the emotions that remarkable penalty shoot-out produced. There is obviously a general excitement that the champions are out, theoretically opening up the whole tournament. A few players watching on, however, have confided that the US were “underwhelming”. Many would have liked the chance to take the champions on and beat them, asserting their standards.
Such sentiments would no doubt have aggravated the Americans, if they were in any mood to look back on this worst ever performance by a team that were defending champions. One frustrated argument within the US camp has been that it has largely been about a ludicrous amount of missed chances, and a bit of bad luck. Goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher pointing to the line as she disputed Lina Hurtig’s ludicrously tight penalty seemed the most apt symbolism of this.
It really did come down to the narrowest of gaps. But, in truth, only on the night.
This World Cup failure is indeed the story of margins and gaps, but in how the rest of the women’s game has caught up with the US, as it now looks a little isolated in terms of coaching culture.
There are big questions for the federation here, but they come amid far bigger themes, even if there is fair criticism for manager Vlatko Andonovksi.
The truth is that great football eras almost never end with close calls or that last fighting pride. There is almost always something close to collapse, as history-making teams inevitably stay wedded to trusted methods and players. In this case, it was in persisting with previous greats like Alex Morgan, who could no longer apply the finishing she used to. That is also the point when a valuable experience can evolve into a certain “arrogance” and “complacency”, two words that have been used by sources with knowledge of the camp.
The ultimate in this remains the Spanish men’s team in 2014, whose unprecedented run of three successive major trophies ended with two humiliating defeats to Netherlands and Chile. The US didn’t play that badly, and actually performed better in general play than they are now being given credit for.
They are still just like that Spain, however, in being responsible for the World Cup’s worst ever performance by defending champions.
None had ever gone out before the quarter-finals. The US themselves had never gone out before the semi-finals.
That reflects the scale of the disappointment – but also how the world has changed.
This is where the biggest questions for the federation come, as distilled in one of the primary themes of this World Cup.
US soccer has long had issues as a “middle-class sport”, where basic participation costs a lot. While this has for a long time been such a weakness in the men’s game, though, it has led to one of the women’s team’s main strengths. They benefited from a level of training beyond most nations, that primarily gave the side conditioning advantages. The US could often just overpower opposition.
As women’s football has moved to a different level in Europe, so has the training. Many nations now benefit from complete professionalism, eroding some of the USA’s most immediate advantages.
This has laid bare something else: tactical and technical development. The US have very quickly looked more rudimentary than the better European sides in terms of team approach.
A lot of this does come down to Andanovski. A fundamental truth remains that this US team would likely have gone much further, and probably won it again, under a better coach.
Other than the irony of the better performance of the Sweden match, this seemed a classic case of a talented squad being made less than the sum of the parts.
As ever in such eliminations, though, it is impossible not to wonder whether other factors influenced. Has the US suffered from all but one of their squad staying at home, and not playing in the Women’s Champions League? The women’s game is following the men’s in that regard in terms of where the wealth is going, which is overwhelming western Europe. That brings a concentration of playing and coaching talent that gradually brings a vitality.
Is this what we are starting to see? Many around the US squad might reasonably point to Germany going out.
It’s also true that the bigger nations have generally come here a little undercooked, gradually finding their feet as the tournament has gone on. Some of them just slipped before they could stand at their strongest.
That happens in tournaments. Evolution in football only happens, however, if you face up to the realities of the game. The US may have to have a serious discussion about talent production, even allowing for the development of a star like Sophia Smith.
Her rise does touch on that other crucial tension, between old and new. There has been growing talk of a camp that isn’t fully united. This itself isn’t new, mind.
Carli Lloyd’s criticism only followed a pattern of this in US World Cups, that perhaps inevitably influenced a great history-making team.
The very success of the side has also played into another issue here. It has been harder to drop players because they are not just great footballers but icons – in the truest sense of an overused word. That obviously isn’t to refer to the tedious and unfair culture war that surrounds a truly progressive team. Some of the usual voices were already being raised about Megan Rapinoe in the wake of her penalty miss, and they don’t even warrant naming.
This is really about pure football terms. That status will affect tactical execution and decisions, even if it is subconscious.
It is why these empires always end with some ignominy, far away from the standards and identity that used to define them. It becomes almost self-fulfilling, and full circle.
Take the USA’s one victory at this World Cup, that almost cost them more than any other game.
In 2019, the team were widely criticised for applying their winning identity to the full, and raucously celebrating all 13 goals against Thailand. This time, the opportunity was there to cut loose against Vietnam, but they couldn’t. It set a tone, and certainly set a pace. The Netherlands showed they were much more up to speed with a 7-0 as the US avoided a humiliating elimination to Portugal by the width of a post.
Another small gap.
It is the story of this World Cup for the deposed champions.
This US team changed women’s football. They are now feeling the effects of that.