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Over the Cliff: The US Women exit World Cup in disarray

If you were paying attention, you saw this flame-out coming.

Let the finger-pointing begin.

The US Women’s National Team crashed out of the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup Sunday morning with a 5-4 penalty shootout loss to third-ranked Sweden after a scoreless draw. It’s the worst-ever performance for the Americans in nine Women’s World Cup appearances — all others saw the U.S. finish third place or better. And it’s the second major tournament in a row that the US women haven’t reached the Final — a first for this program.

The loss makes this World Cup, as Alexi Lalas deemed post-game, an “unmitigated disaster” for the US Women’s program. And if you were paying attention, it’s not like you couldn’t see this flame-out coming.

Like a bad “Price is Right” contestant playing Cliff Hangers, you know the yodeling mountain man is going to make that death fall, all because that contestant thinks a $25 toaster is $100 — just like many overestimated the potential of the two-time reigning World Cup champions in this go-around.

When the yodeling guy crashes hard, it was much like the US Women’s Team did in the Women’s World Cup quarterfinals.

Let’s set aside how we feel about the past achievements of the US Women’s program overall: Their four world championships directly elevated the women’s game in America, and youth development, and a successful pro league. Plus there are the societal impacts on women, LGBT, and economic equality. Those legacies are untouched, and for the most part, unspoiled.

But in this incarnation of the U.S. Women’s National Team, with nine players over the age of 30 – and with a head coach whose tactics, team sheets, and substitutions drove many soccer media types to drink – there are serious questions that need to be answered.

238 scoreless minutes

Despite performing very well Sunday against Sweden, many will remember this 2023 World Cup for the USWNT record scoring drought, which is now at 238 minutes. Despite numerous chances, a nearly 60/40 possession advantage, and 11 shots on target turned away by Sweden’s keeper Zecira Musovic, the world’s No 1-ranked team couldn’t find the net.

Was this in part to the US Women fielding their least experienced Starting XI in 27 years? Was this due to Rose Lavelle’s costly yellow-card suspension?

Honestly, for all of the tactical issues and mistakes Andonovski made in this World Cup, today’s lineup and tactics worked as well as they could. They seemed to outmatch Sweden for long stretches of the match, and had numerous scoring opportunities. Still, only one goal in the final three matches, and the refusal to use the young talent you brought to the World Cup in favor of aging players, is enough to earn Vlatko his walking papers.

There were some positives: How good was that US defense? Goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher didn’t have to make a save until the 85th minute of today’s game — a streak of 355 minutes. And so many kudos for the play of San Diego Wave defender Naomi Girma, who was a rock for the U.S. backline in all four matches.

Shot in the foot

The US had only lost one penalty shootout in Women’s World Cup history, in the 2011 Final vs Japan. They should have come out on top then. And they shouldn’t have lost today’s either.

While many would say a Penalty Shootout is similar to “playing the lottery,” that’s true if the goalkeeper guesses the right direction the player is kicking. But today, there was no “lottery” at all. Three U.S. players – Megan Rapinoe, Sophie Smith, and Kelley O’Hara – either skied their kick into the stratosphere, or clanged off the post.

That’s not “luck,” but lack of concentration, nerve, and poise — even more so for O’Hara, who came into the match as a late sub, just for the purpose of penalties. The keeper didn’t stop them. THEY stopped themselves.

Rapinoe, who ESPN labeled as “a shadow of her former self with shaky touches and poor set pieces,” called her miss a “dark comedy” — which I guess explains her laughing on the field after the miss. Remember, if she had converted, she would have won the match because of Naeher’s save on the preceding kick.

After her laughing on the field after their 0-0 near-elimination vs Portugal, and her pre-match fashion show, Rapinoe made herself a magnet for her opponent’s ire. Even though she’s already announced her retirement from international football, and will likely end her NWSL career later this year, this missed opportunity will be a major mark on her legacy.

Side Note: Very interesting that Fox Sports Twitter account did not cut videos of ANY of the US Women’s missed penalties. Wondering if that’s to protect their multiple advertisers/sponsors that featured Rapinoe and Smith in ad campaigns that continue to run during World Cup broadcasts?

It is very sad that Smith missed the potential game-winning PK, skying it just like Rapinoe did the moment before her. But Smith, who will likely be a leader for the 2027 Women’s World Cup squad, likely to be hosted by USA/Mexico, it’s a life lesson she can build on, just like Carli Lloyd did.

And all-around kudos to US keeper Naeher, who did everything she could in a penalty shootout to keep her team in it, notching a save to offset Rapinoe’s miss. Alas, the Goal Decision System can be a cruel mistress, which showed her final PK crossed the line by just 1 millimeter.

Versus the World: It’s Not Enough

As the Fox Sports post-match analysis broke down the match, it was Carli Lloyd — yes, THAT Carli Lloyd — who mentioned that US Soccer needs to evaluate their entire structure for women’s soccer, from youth development to the National Team.

“This is a whole moment to rebuild,” Lloyd said in the post-match remarks, “I think this stems from the youth level. I don’t think this is necessarily something that just came to fruition now … This needs to be the entirety of a rebuild.”

The 3Four3 coaching podcast also came to the same conclusion, namely that the US Women continue to rest on their previous athletic advantages to roll the rest of the world. And that game has gone stale.

But now, as top soccer countries invest even meager amounts in their own women’s soccer development programs, it appears many of the Top 20 ranked nations have improved to the point where they can respectfully challenge the world powers — the US, England, Sweden, Germany, and the like.

As the previous “golden generation” of USWNT vets age out (Rapinoe, Morgan, etc.) we’re left with a young and untested core group that has yet to have a lot of serious international competition. And no, those numerous cupcake friendlies on home soil versus CONCACAF opponents to sell tickets and merchandise on your aging veterans’ reputation don’t count.

Much of that lies in the decisions made by head coach Vlatko Andonovski…whose tenure I would suspect will be corrected within weeks.

So, now, we go into a four-year cycle with no US Women’s team wearing that gold World Cup Champions badge on their kits. Rapinoe and Morgan will likely slip into future careers in politics and/or the sports PxP/pundit’s desk on TV. And that leaves a young core squad itching for new leadership and a new coach at the helm as the rebuild commences.

Much like the US Men’s team supporters waited with bated breath for a new head coach to be named (and then signed when Gregg Berhalter was rehired), the new women’s head coach will be decided by US Soccer president Cindy Parlow Cone and USWNT GM Kate Markgraf.

Hopefully, they make the right call, installing a leader that can drive and challenge this team to reach new heights, and not go cliff-diving again on the world’s biggest soccer stage.