Extra Time: Pain and Disappointment

10 minute read

This story first appeared in Extra Time, our pop-up newsletter about the 2023 Women’s World Cup. Get it in your inbox by subscribing here.

End of an Era

U.S. keeper Alyssa Naeher tipped the soccer ball, which then popped in the air, above the crossbar. The U.S. Women's National Team’s (USWNT) hopes for a third consecutive World Cup, and a powerful desire to prevent its earliest-ever exit from a World Cup, hung in the balance. 

That ball didn’t hang up there forever. It just seemed like it. 

Naeher did almost everything correct in the seventh round of this game’s penalty shootout; she had to make a save to keep the U.S. chances alive in the Round of 16 game against Sweden. 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. 

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’s into the quarterfinals, against Japan on Friday.

The Americans, meanwhile, were done. 

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 had little hope for the USWNT. 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 Lindsey Horan ripper in the second half. Mušović 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 with the victory. That’s because, on several key occasions, the U.S. missed badly. 

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 the Americans a cushion and emerge a hero. She sailed her shot into the stands, ending her excellent 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 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 O'Hara banged it against the post, which saved the Americans against Portugal, and broke their heart against the Swedes.

Hurtig’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 and still lose. 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, 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. Horan had her opportunities on Sunday.

The better team on Sunday, the U.S., won’t advance. But the better team at this World Cup, Sweden, will.

Next Stop: Paris

Silver lining for USWNT fans—there’s a quick turnaround between the World Cup and the Olympics in Paris next week. The women’s soccer final is on Sunday, August 10, at the Parc des Princes. For the first time, the Olympic soccer competition will conclude with the women's final, not the men's final. Smith, Rodman, Naomi Girma and company need to shake this disappointment off, fast, to prepare for another shot at international glory.

The Americans are likely to have a new coach in Paris. Vlatko Andonovski led the U.S. to a disappointing bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympics, and its worst-ever performance at a World Cup. Calls for change will be loud. And they’ll be justified.

Welcome To The World Cup 

A quick three cheers for Kristie Mewis. The U.S. midfielder and World Cup rookie was put into the game during the last minute of extra time, seconds before the final whistle blew. Andonovski was clearly counting on Mewis to make a penalty shot. She hadn’t played all tournament long. Her first World Cup touch, in her life, was on that penalty kick against Sweden. 

She nailed it anyway, rewarding Andonovski’s faith in her. Give Andonovski his due here too: if Mewis missed that shot, costing the Americans the game, he may have been fired before leaving the field. 

But I can’t help but wish we saw more of Mewis before Sunday.

Japan Juggernaut

Sweden will face sizzling Japan in the quarters on Friday. Japan defeated Norway on Saturday, 3-1, in the round of 16. Japan’s Hinyata Miyazawa scored another goal: she now has five, to lead the race for the Golden Boot as the tournament’s top scorer. After beating Spain, 4-0, in its final group stage game, Japan has outscored its opponents 7-1 in its last two games, and 14-1 for the entire World Cup. Japan’s multi-pronged attack, consisting of its three forwards and outside wing backs, has proved scarily effective so far. 

Japanese midfielder Jun Endo plays for Angel City FC, of the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL). The Los Angeles Times calls Endo, 23, “the most popular player” on the team. She was born in Fukushima; after the earthquake and tsunami caused a nuclear disaster there in March of 2011, she was forced to train inside for months, due to radiation fears. (Endo was in a locker room after gym class when the earthquake struck). Japan’s World Cup victory that summer inspired her to become a pro; a dozen years later, she hopes to be standing on the World Cup podium too, paving the way for a new generation of Japanese players.  

Endo and Japan surely have a shot.

Recommended Reading/Viewing

Hurtig’s shot got over the line by that much. Yes, that much.   (Fox Soccer) 

The USWNT broke viewership records. So the early exit will cost Fox Sports. (Axios)

U.S. soccer players speak after the crushing loss to Sweden. (Fox Sports)

Nigeria’s coach spoke up about equal pay and was criticized for his words. Now, the Super Falcons have a path to a title. (AP) 

How Denmark may destroy a home-team’s dreams. (The Guardian)

Parting Thought

Over these next few days and weeks, and even months, we’ll read autopsies on what went wrong with USWNT at this World Cup, and how to fix some serious issues in time for the Olympics, or at least before the 2027 World Cup. As historic soccer powers continue to invest in the women’s game and construct a talent development model that has worked for their men for years, the flaws in the U.S. system that have thwarted the American men—particularly pay-for-play at the youth level pricing out potential players—will continue to hurt the women. The U.S. women’s teams have struggled in recent years at the under-20 and under-17 levels. So this result down under doesn’t come as a total shocker. 

Maybe a coaching change is needed. Maybe Americans need to play more futsal. Maybe injuries are to blame: Mallory Swanson’s injury proved both devastating to her, and the team. The U.S. was without its top scorer this season at the World Cup, and still, Sweden needed fortunate bounces to knock the Americans out.

Hope is far from lost. It's not like other teams crushed the Americans at this World Cup. After beating Vietnam in the opener, the USWNT played even with the Netherlands, Portugal and Sweden the rest of the way.

But something’s still gone from the USWNT, and it’s bittersweet.

I think back to the London Olympics, 11 years ago, and covering America's epic 4-3 semifinal win over Canada at Old Trafford stadium in Manchester, home of Manchester United. Alex Morgan scored the game-winning header in the 119th minute. Megan Rapinoe scored two goals that game. I called the USWNT “the most exciting team in American sports,” and the bill fit. The year before, in 2011, the U.S. lost the World Cup but pulled out a quarterfinal thriller against Brazil. And the final against Japan had twists and turns (Japan won in a penalty shootout, but after a 2-2 tie, not 0-0). The U.S. then won that gold in London, and produced the Carli Lloyd hat trick against Japan in the 2015 World Cup final.

In 2019, we saw the responses against Spain and France and England and the Netherlands, as the team started an equal pay movement off the field, drew the ire of the President of the United States and sparked fevered conversations about sportsmanship and inspiration. The team thrilled, and it mattered. 

This team still matters. Just look at the viewership numbers. But that thrill was gone in New Zealand and Australia, despite the close call against Sweden on penalties. 

It just needn’t be gone forever.

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