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Sweden Stuns U.S. Soccer Team in Olympic Opener

Sweden Stuns U.S. Soccer Team in Olympic Opener
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Sweden Stuns U.S. Soccer Team in Olympic Opener

Sweden Stuns U.S. Soccer Team in Olympic Opener

CHOFU, Japan – Five years. This is the time he had waited for this match.

Sweden’s hopes of winning an Olympic gold medal at the Rio 2016 Games have been dashed for five years by Sweden. Five years after a defeat that forced Americans to look in the mirror and ask tough questions about their age, dominance and future.

Five years of waiting, to end up in the same place.

The United States opened the Tokyo Olympics on Wednesday exactly where it ended the Rio Games five years earlier: reeling from a humiliating and embarrassing loss to Sweden.

At the time, it was a loss on penalties in the quarterfinals. This time it was not so close: Sweden dominated the United States, 3-0. At the time, Sweden had destroyed and frustrated the Americans. On Wednesday, he simply dominated from one side of the field to the other.

“Were we expecting this result tonight? No, ”said American striker Megan Rapinoe. “It’s frustrating, and it’s frustrating that it’s Sweden.”

“I can’t remember the last time we allowed a goal,” she added. “So giving up three isn’t great.”

Defender Kelley O’Hara admitted ahead of the game that she and her teammates were waiting for another shot against the Swedes at the Games. “This is what we have been waiting for for five years now, to be back here,” she said.

They didn’t expect it to be like this.

Credit…Photographs by Emily Rhyne / The New York Times; composite image by Larry Buchanan

Forward Stina Blackstenius scored a goal in each half for Sweden, a sharp header in the 25th minute and a close range end in the 54th which seemed like a fair reward for a dominant performance at the forefront of a Swedish attack which had the Americans on their heels almost as soon as the game started.

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The United States has done everything to turn the tide. Position adjustments to try and help a midfielder who was regularly overtaken. Substitutions to reshape a largely toothless attack. Reinforcements to strengthen a tusk that was first stretched and then cut out.

Even the most trusted veterans brought in to help seemed to have little effect. Carli Lloyd and Julie Ertz – in their first appearance in months – came on at half-time, but Sweden quickly doubled their lead. Rapinoe was inserted to offer a bit of threat on the wing, but it never materialized.

Even the departure – fortunately for the Americans – of Blackstenius, in the 64th minute, was not a balm; her replacement, Lina Hurtig, simply picked up where she left off, straightening up for an open header and making it Sweden’s third goal eight minutes into the game.

Credit…Doug Mills / The New York Times

The loss was the Americans’ first in 24 games under coach Vlatko Andonovski and their first against an opponent since a loss to France in January 2019. It will force them to scramble to recover in the sprint that is the Olympic tournament: The matches against New Zealand (Saturday) and Australia (Tuesday) will come in quick succession in the first round, and tougher opponents like Great Britain, Brazil and the Netherlands could wait in the round of medals.

“You lose points at the start of a tournament, you are in do-or-die mode,” said Rapinoe.

But first, the Americans will have to figure out what went wrong at the Tokyo stadium.

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Maybe the defeat shouldn’t have been a total surprise. Sweden is no stranger to the United States – the teams meeting on Wednesday was their 10th in a major league, including games from the last five World Cups – and Sweden could have been forgiven for a little confidence after having had a strong performance in April against the United States in a 1-1 draw in Stockholm.

This match seemed, at the time, a rare misstep for an American team to lose is anathema. Until Wednesday, the draw in Stockholm had been the only stain on the Americans’ record under Andonovski (22-0-1).

Credit…Alexandra Garcia / The New York Times

Wednesday’s victory was a much stronger statement, the kind of one-sided performance the United States is more used to offering than swallowing. And it will raise tough questions about Andonovski’s reliance on an aging core – every striker on the U.S. roster is over 30 – and his commitment to past results as an indicator of future performance.

While the Olympics have been delayed for a year due to the pandemic, the U.S. roster is relatively unchanged since the 2019 Women’s World Cup. It includes not only her veteran frontline, but question marks as well. like Ertz, whose appearance was his first for a team in months after a leg injury this year, and Tobin Heath, who has just returned from an injury.

“I don’t judge players by their age,” Andonovski said when he picked his Olympic roster. “They’re either good, efficient and can help us win or they can’t. “

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He knows that dismissing his team as the favorite for the gold medal on just one performance would be a mistake. Seventeen of the gold-chasing players in Japan, for example, were part of the squad that won the World Cup in France two years ago. A handful have gold medals from previous Games. Now, however, they will have to summon the kind of grain that delivered these awards if they are to claim another, and do so in the melting pot of a scorching Japanese summer and the compressed Olympic calendar.

At least on Wednesday some of the more seasoned players were preaching patience.

“It’s going to be a tough tournament,” forward Christen Press said. “But we knew it was going to be a tough tournament.”

Credit…Emily Rhyne / The New York Times

Defender Becky Sauerbrunn, whose night has been worse than most, looked poised to get out of it quickly, although she admitted that the tournament – at least from the United States’ perspective – has now changed.

– Bad night tonight, she said. “We have a lot of work ahead of us. “

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