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The U.S. World Cup Campaign Ends in Historic Disappointment

5 minute read

A Sweden penalty shot on Sunday, after the U.S. and Sweden played to a 0-0 draw in regulation and extra time, barely crossed the goal line to give Sweden a dramatic victory over its longtime international nemesis, the U.S. Women's National Team (USWNT), and send the USWNT home from the World Cup at the earliest stage in history.

U.S. keeper Alyssa Naeher did almost everything correct the seventh round of the game’s penalty shootout; she had to make a save to keep the U.S. chances alive. She dove to her right as Lina Hurtig’s shot headed her way. Naeher got her hands up to stop it; the ball ricocheted into the air. Naeher, from her spot on the ground, crawled to desperately try to keep the ball from crossing the goal line as it came back down. 

But in actuality, there was absolutely nothing Naeher could do. Physics had taken over: the ball was already over the line, by maybe a nanometer. An ant couldn’t fit through the space between the bottom of the ball and the goal line.

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In World Cup soccer, just like in every other space in which we live, the cameras catch everything. The proof was in the pictures. After a tortuous period of uncertainty, as officials took a look at the tech, the ref confirmed the outcome. Sweden goal. Game over. Sweden is into the quarterfinals. 

The Americans, meanwhile, were done. Sweden moves on to play Japan in the World Cup quarterfinals on Friday.  

The USWNT, however, will fly home having defied some expectations. Coming into this game, after playing to two straight draws in the group stage—with the Netherlands and Portugal—and after barely escaping from the preliminary round exit after a late Portugal shot struck the goal post—many fans and pundits offered the U.S. little hope. The Swedes swept through the group stage. The U.S. struggled to survive. 

Then, on Sunday in Melbourne, the U.S. went out and simply dominated the run of play. Metrics said that the Americans deserved to win. The U.S. controlled possession of the ball, 50%-34%. While the U.S. got off 21 shots, Sweden had just seven opportunities. Eleven of those U.S. shots were on target, while just one Swedish shot hit the mark.

Unfortunately for the Americans, Swedish keeper Zećira Mušović was flawless. She had a bunch of sweet saves, her best perhaps coming on a Linday Horan ripper in the second half: Musocvic dove to get a hand on it. 

Regulation, plus 30 minutes of extra time, produced another 0-0 draw for the U.S.  

Mušović was Sweden’s MVP. But she didn’t make a single save in the penalty shootout, and still walked away from the victory. That’s because, on several key occasions, the U.S. missed far and wide.

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On the fourth penalty shot, with the U.S. up 3-2, Megan Rapinoe—who again entered the game in the second half to provide scoring spark— had a chance to give Americans a cushion and emerge a hero. She sailed her shot into the stands, ending her brilliant World Cup career on a down note. Naeher however, made a brilliant save on Sweden’s next attempt, stretching as far as she could, to her left, to stop it. 

This gave Sophia Smith, decked all game in cool black gloves, an opportunity to seal the win for the U.S. But a consecutive American attempt missed badly, very high, and very wide, to the right. Smith started out this tournament on such a high note, with two goals and an assist in that game against Vietnam. What an unfortunate ending for a future World Cup star. Just not a present one.

Sweden’s Hanna Bennison, a late-game sub and just 20-years-old, calmly kept Sweden alive on the next shot, to tie up the shootout at 3-3. Naeher scored a goal of her own, but Magadalena Eriksson matched her. On the seventh U.S. shot, however, Kelly O’Hara, the World Cup veteran leader who like Rapinoe was making her fourth appearance, got Mušović to dive the wrong way. She had the whole right side of the net to herself. 

But banged it against the post, which saved the Americans against Portugal, and broke their heart against the Swedes.

Hurting’s strike then ended the game, by far less than a hair.

Soccer is unfair like that. More than any other game, one side can control the attack. But one slip, or one unlucky bounce, can still cost you, despite your side running faster, completing more passes, and thoroughly outplaying the opposition. While that outcome might seem unfair, a bad habit that reared its head in the opening game, against Vietnam, justifiably came back to haunt the U.S all World Cup long: the ability to do everything right, except the last part: putting the ball in the net. Trinity Rodman got loose a few times: she just couldn’t convert. Alex Morgan had her chances, all tournament long: America’s striker of the past decade didn’t strike. Lindsey Horan had her opportunities on Sunday.

She and her teammates won’t have any more. The better team on Sunday, the U.S., won’t advance. But the better team at this World Cup, Sweden, will. 

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Write to Sean Gregory at sean.gregory@time.com