The U.S. women's soccer team poses for a photo prior to their match against Sweden at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 on July 21, 2021 in Tokyo.
TOKYO — There’s a lot to like about Sweden. It’s the country that gave the world ABBA, delicious meatballs and a certain blue furniture store that fortifies any domestic relationship.
Those fuzzy feelings don’t quite extend to the U.S. women’s soccer team.
On a breezy summer evening in outer Tokyo, two days before the opening ceremony formally kicks off the postponed Olympic Games here, the Swedes blanked the U.S. 3-0 in one of the most toothless performances in recent history for the world’s top-ranked team.
The result snapped a 44-game U.S. unbeaten streak dating back to January 2019 and marked just the second regulation defeat for the U.S. at the Olympics since women’s soccer was added in 1996. It also puts Team USA in an early hole in the Group G standings that could complicate its quest for a fifth Olympic gold medal.
“We’ve got ourselves into this mess,” U.S. captain Becky Sauerbrunn said. “Now it’s our responsibility to get ourselves out of it.”
Of course, the loss had to come at the hands of Sweden.
No matter the tournament, the teams always find each other — six times at the Women’s World Cup, and now four times at the Olympics. In that previous Olympic meeting, in 2016 in Rio, the Swedes knocked out the U.S. in a shootout in the quarterfinals, marking the first time Team USA failed to reach the semifinals in one of the sport’s two major tournaments.
The Swedes were also the lone team to have escaped defeat against the USWNT since October 2019, having earned a 1-1 draw in Stockholm this spring.
Going into this week’s game, Sauerbrunn called the 2016 loss to Sweden “one of the worst results that the senior national team has had in a major tournament.”
“From playing in that game, I know how disappointed we all were, and for me it has lit a fire going into 2019 and also here,” she said Tuesday.
The U.S. went on from that Olympic disappointment to win its second consecutive World Cup in 2019, followed by the 2.5-year unbeaten streak.
With a chance to truly turn the page on that 2016 loss Wednesday, though, the U.S. instead left with its worst result at a major tournament since falling 4-0 to Brazil in the 2007 World Cup semifinals.
Megan Rapinoe, playing in her third Olympics, downplayed any tension in facing the Swedes again, instead giving credit to the world’s fifth-ranked team and defending Olympic silver medalist.
“They’re just a very good team that we face all the time,” Rapinoe said. “They’re one of the best teams in Europe ever, so it’s always going to be tough. I think we obviously match up pretty well together, they match up well against us. I think they found the spaces in our defensive shape, and they’re a team that knows exactly who they are. Not every team plays like that with that kind of conviction.”
That conviction was evident from the start in an empty Tokyo Stadium, with fans not allowed at any venues during these Olympics due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Controlling the game from the outset, Sweden tested the U.S. back line early and often, forcing goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher into action with diving save after diving save across the U.S. net.
Finally, in the 25th minute, Sweden’s Stina Blackstenius sent a header past Naeher to open the scoring. It was Blackstenius who also scored Sweden’s regulation goal in the 2016 Olympic quarterfinal game.
Though the goal seemed to wake up the U.S. players a bit, the Americans were lucky to get out of the half down by just one after being outshot 10-3, and with only one shot on goal to Sweden’s six. The U.S. also gave up seven corner kicks while earning only one.
“It felt like we weren’t quite finding enough passes, we were losing the ball in bad areas,” Sauerbrunn said. “Like I said before they were committing numbers fast, and it’s really hard to defend that because we like to play in an expansive shape, and so they capitalized on that.”
Halftime subs of Julie Ertz and Carli Lloyd, replacing Samantha Mewis and Alex Morgan, respectively, couldn’t wake up the U.S. squad — at least not enough. Blackstenius put away the rebound after a teammate’s header hit off the post on a corner kick in the 54th minute. Lisa Hurtig closed out the scoring with a hard-hit header past a flailing Naeher in the 72nd minute.
The U.S. had a couple chances. Midfielder Rose Lavelle nearly headed in a goal off a corner kick in the 45th minute, but the ball bounced off the post. Forward Christin Press also sent a point-blank shot into the post just before Sweden’s final goal. Rapinoe, who entered the game as a 64th minute sub for Tobin Heath, brought some much needed creativity to the game but ultimately the U.S. could not finish.
For the Americans, there’s little time to dwell on this one. The U.S. is back in action already on Saturday against New Zealand in Saitama City before closing out group play on July 27 against Australia in Kashima City.
“You drop points at the beginning of the tournament, now you’re going in sort of do or die mode,” Rapinoe said, “otherwise we’re going home.”
Want to follow Team USA athletes during the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020? Visit TeamUSA.org/Tokyo2020 to view the medal table, results and competition schedule.