U.S. Women’s Soccer Team celebrates scoring their side's fourth goal during the Women's Bronze Medal match at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 on August 05, 2021 in Kashima, Japan.
KASHIMA, Japan — Someday the U.S. women’s soccer team will have to figure out why, in Megan Rapinoe’s words, it “played five bad games and had one good game” in the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.
Thursday night, after that “good" one, wasn’t the time.
The veteran-laden U.S. squad came out with guns a blazing, then held on when Australia fired its own shots late, to win the bronze-medal game 4-3 at Ibaraki Kashima Stadium in the coastal town of Kashima, about 90 minutes east of Tokyo.
The U.S. has now medaled in six of the seven Olympic women’s soccer tournaments, with the only exception being four years ago in Rio. Following a whirlwind two weeks of games played in empty stadiums and only three days apart, and a tournament when the U.S. looked for long periods like a shell of the team that’s dominated much of the past few years, the players leave Japan on a high note.
“I can’t say more than the bronze means so much,” U.S. captain Becky Sauerbrunn said. “It feels like we really had to earn that thing, and we’re very proud.”
Sweden and Canada will meet Friday for the gold medal in Yokohama, Japan.
The Olympic tournament, held one year late due to the pandemic, got off to a rough start for the USWNT, and though it kept progressing the vibe surrounding the team still felt off.
That came to a head following Monday’s 1-0 loss to Canada in the semifinals. The players hold a short debriefing after each game, an opportunity for anyone with a thought to share it. After the Canada loss, their closed-door session was more than that.
“We just tried to clear the air and tried to figure out what was going on,” Sauerbrunn said, “because it clearly wasn’t us. It wasn’t our identity. We weren’t bringing the intangibles and non-negotiables that we’re always supposed to bring every single game.”
With nothing left to lose in the bronze-medal game, the U.S. players finally played like they were used to.
Australia charged the U.S. goal out of the gate, but a hard-pressing, crisp U.S. squad soon took control. Showing a confidence not often seen in these Olympics, the Americans were rewarded for their bold play in the eighth minute when Rapinoe sent a deceptively curling corner kick over the flailing arms of Australia goalie Teagan Micah and into the net for an “Olimpico” goal.
“I wanted to sneak one in there,” Rapinoe said. “I actually meant it this time.”
Australia got one back nine minutes later when star striker Sam Kerr nailed a low, spinning shot past U.S. goalie Adrianna Franch from close range. Franch started her first game of the tournament in place of Alyssa Naeher, who left the semifinal game with a hyperextension of her right knee and a bone contusion.
With weapons like Kerr, one of the world’s best goal-scorers, Australia had the potency to stick around. The rest of the first half was dominated by the Americans, though.
Four minutes after Kerr’s equalizer, Rapinoe made Australia pay for a bungled clearance by slamming the ball into the back of the net. Trying to get the ball out of their penalty area, one Australian hit a weak pass to another, who then mis-hit it in the a. With a meatball floating her way, Rapinoe turned on a one-touch volley to put the U.S. up 2-1.
The goals were the first of the Olympics for Rapinoe, a three-time Olympian who turned 36 last month.
It wasn’t going to be a medal game without the team’s other veteran forward getting into the action too.
Carli Lloyd, who scored the gold-medal-winning goals in both the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, made it 3-1 in first half stoppage time with a hard left-footed shot on the run. Lindsey Horan threaded the needle for Lloyd, whose goal was her ninth goal in Olympic play, tying the U.S. record set by Abby Wambach.
Six minutes into the second half, Lloyd grabbed that record for herself when she took advantage of a misplayed ball deep in Australia's end and blasted another shot past Micah.
The Americans hardly walked away with the win, though.
Australia's Caitlin Foord closed the gap to two in the 54th minute, and Kerr nearly added another goal three minutes later when her close-range shot boinked off the far post, floated back across the goal and then bounced out of bounds. In the 90th minute, Emily Gielnik eventually did put one in, dribbling a quarter length of the field before blasting in a long-range golazo from outside of the box.
An late injury to Alex Morgan, at a time when the U.S. was already out of subs, did little to ease the tension, but time ran out on any comeback. The Americans let out a scream when the referee blew the final whistle.
“To come out with the game that we did, I’m just proud of the team,” U.S. coach Vlatko Andonovski said. “I’m proud of the players.”
At an Olympics when much has been discussed about the human element of sports, as opposed to judging athletes solely on their medals, the Americans made it clear that they were satisfied with their finish.
“Obviously we wanted to get a gold medal, everybody wants to get a gold medal,” Sauerbrunn said. “Americans love gold. The fact is, we potentially didn’t deserve to get a gold medal.”
The players know, though, the autopsy is coming.
From the beginning of the tournament, something was not quite right.
Coming into the Olympics as the world’s top-ranked team and on a 44-game unbeaten streak, the USWNT opened with a dud on July 21, falling to Sweden 3-0 at Tokyo Stadium two days before the opening ceremony.
Although the Americans snuck out of the group stage and advanced to through quarterfinals, they hardly resembled the dominant teams that rolled to FIFA Women’s World Cup wins in 2015 and 2019, save for parts of the quarterfinal, when the U.S. beat the Netherlands in penalties in a rematch of the 2019 World Cup final.
“We kind of got slapped in our face the first game against Sweden, and then we really couldn’t find a way,” Lloyd said.
Much has already been made about the status of Andonovski, who was coaching in his first major tournament. The U.S. roster will be put under the microscope too. The core of this squad has been together for several years, and on Thursday six starters were in their 30s, with three more on the bench. Though no one offered concrete plans about their future following the game, the roster will undoubtedly have some turnover ahead of the 2023 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand. The question is how much.
Perhaps the biggest question mark is the seemingly indefatigable Lloyd, who at 39 was the oldest member of this team. Making her 22nd Olympic appearance Thursday, Lloyd tied another U.S. record, this one held by Christie Pearce Rampone. She did move past Rampone, however, for sole possession of second in career caps by a USWNT player with 312. Only Kristine Lilly, with 354, has more.
“I haven’t made any official announcement yet, but obviously I am at the tail end of my career,” Lloyd said.
There will be similar questions for Rapinoe as Sauerbrunn, who is also 36, among several others.
For now, the U.S. players have a full day to celebrate before heading over to the medal ceremony Friday night in Yokohama. It'll be one last hurrah for this team, after what might have been the last dance for this core group of women as well.
“There’s always that chance that it may be,” Lloyd said. “And you don’t know what’s going to happen in a couple of years, but as life goes on this team will continue to go on and be successful. But hopefully everyone on this squad and people watching will remember, you don’t win without the U.S. mentality. And I think that probably has been the biggest takeaway from this team."