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US women’s soccer team stunned by Sweden, again, at Olympics

CHOFU, Japan — Five years they had waited for this game.

Five years since Sweden had dashed the U.S. women’s soccer team’s hopes for an Olympic gold medal at the 2016 Rio Games. Five years since a defeat that forced the Americans to look in the mirror and ask hard questions about their age, their dominance, their future.

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

The United States opened the Tokyo Olympics on Wednesday right where it had ended the Rio Games five years earlier: on the wrong end of a humbling, embarrassing defeat to Sweden. Then it was a loss on penalties in the quarterfinals; this time it was not nearly as close: Sweden 3, United States 0. But the sting and the statement baked into the defeat was just as real.

“It feels like a big deal,” defender Kelley O’Hara had said Tuesday of the looming rematch. “It feels like the Olympics. It’s what we’ve waited now five years for, to be back here.”

They just never expected it to go like this.

Striker Stina Blackstenius delivered a goal in each half for Sweden, a glancing header in the 25th minute and a point-blank finish in the 54th that felt like a just reward for a dominant performance at the tip of a Sweden attack that had the Americans on their heels almost as soon as the game began.

The United States tried everything to turn the tide. Positional tweaks to try to aid a midfield was that routinely overrun. Substitutions to refashion an impotent attack. Reinforcements to bolster a defense that was first stretched and then cut apart.

Even the most reliable veterans seemed to have little effect. Carli Lloyd and Julie Ertz — in her first appearance in months — came on at halftime, but Sweden soon doubled its lead. Megan Rapinoe was inserted to bring a bit of menace on the wing, but it never materialized.

Even the departure — mercifully, in the Americans’ view — of Blackstenius in the 64th minute wasn’t a balm. Her replacement, Lina Hurtig, merely picked up where she left off by claiming an open header for Sweden’s third goal eight minutes later.

“I thought we were a little tight, a little nervous, just doing dumb stuff,” Rapinoe said of the early hole her teammates dug for themselves.

The defeat was the Americans’ first in 24 games under coach Vlatko Andonovski, and their first against any opponent since a loss to France in January 2019 — a stretch of 45 games. And it will force them to scramble to recover in the Olympic tournament: Games against New Zealand (on Saturday) and Australia (on Tuesday) will arrive in quick succession in the first round, and tougher opponents like Britain and the Netherlands could await in the medal round.

“You drop points in the beginning of a tournament, you’re in do-or-die mode,” Rapinoe said.

But first, the Americans will have to sort out just what went wrong at Tokyo Stadium.

Perhaps defeat should not have been a complete surprise. Sweden is no stranger to the United States — the teams’ meeting Wednesday was their 10th in a major championship, including games in the last five World Cups — and it could have been forgiven a bit of confidence after it had turned in a strong performance in April against the United States in a 1-1 tie in Stockholm.

That game had seemed, at the time, a rare misstep for a U.S. team for which losing is anathema. Until Wednesday, the tie in Stockholm had been the only blemish on the Americans’ record under Andonovski (22-0-1).

Wednesday’s win was a much stronger statement, and it will raise hard questions about Andonovski’s reliance on an aging core — every forward on the U.S. roster is over 30 — and on past results as an indicator of future performance.

While the Olympics were delayed a year because of the pandemic, the U.S. roster is relatively unchanged since the 2019 Women’s World Cup. It includes not only its veteran front line but also question marks like Ertz, whose appearance was her first for any team in months after a leg injury earlier this year, and Tobin Heath, who is only recently back from an injury of her own.

Seventeen of the players seeking gold in Japan, in fact, were on the team that lifted the World Cup in France two years ago. Now they will have to summon the kind of grit that delivered that prize if they are to claim another one, and do it in the crucible of a scorching Japanese summer and a compressed Olympic schedule.

On Wednesday, at least, a few of the most experienced players were preaching patience.

“It’s going to be a hard tournament,” forward Christen Press said. “We knew it was going to be a hard tournament.”

Rapinoe, watching from the bench as the team imploded in the first hour, said she wanted “to put a mirror in front of everyone and say: ‘Relax. We’re good.’”

Defender Becky Sauerbrunn, whose night went worse than most, sounded ready to move on from it quickly, even as she acknowledged that the tournament — at least from a U.S. perspective — has now changed quite a bit.

“Bad night tonight,” Sauerbrunn said. “We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us.”

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