USWNT eliminated by Sweden in Round of 16 via Penalty Shootout
By Austin Gage
Contributing Sports Writer
Culminating what has been a disappointing FIFA Women’s World Cup for the Americans, the USWNT were eliminated at the hands of Sweden in a dramatic penalty shootout Sunday (5 a.m. on the West Coast) after the teams could not find a winner after 120 minutes of goalless play in Melbourne, Australia. The Blue and Yellow defeated the Stars and Stripes 5-4 in penalties, a setting in which created nerve-wracking moments for both sides.
After escaping their last group stage match against Portugal with a similar nail-biting 0-0 draw, the United States desperately needed to regroup and reignite in the matter of just a few days for their matchup against FIFA’s third ranked squad in the world: the Swedes. Sweden had won Group G with three wins in three games (9 points) and presented an extreme matchup for the United States. Much of the criticism of the Americans centered around their inability to win their own group; had they slotted in as the winner of their own group, they would have been able to avoid highly ranked Sweden and faced 54th ranked South Africa instead.
For the United States, spark plug and experienced midfielder Rose Lavelle was forced to miss the game due to her acclimation of two yellow cards in the previous two matches. In for Lavelle was midfielder Emily Sonnett, who played a great game through key defensive tackles and a strong presence through the middle.
Despite the question marks and concerns surrounding the team coming into the game, the Americans looked sharp out of the gates. For a match that kicked off at 2 in the morning on the West Coast, the United States fortunately did not match the sluggishness that many of the viewers experienced.
Early pressure was put on the Swedish side and was highlighted by an outside-the-box shot attempt by forward Trinity Rodman in the 18th minute. Rodman, who entered the game with an apparent illness, provided quality minutes and several attacking chances in her gametime before being subbed off in the second half. However, her strike was blocked out of trouble by Sweden goalkeeper Zecira Musovic. This quickly turned into an aggravating dilemma for the Americans: fantastic chances on goal thwarted by miraculous saves by Musovic.
A corner kick in the 34th minute presented another goal-scoring chance for the Americans as midfielder Andi Sullivan sent a pristine cross that found the head of fellow midfielder Lindsey Horan and seemed destined to slip under the crossbar for a goal. Unfortunately, the heading attempt was just too tall and deflected off the top bar out of play. The American bench erupted at the moment of touch of the heading Horan, just to be quickly seated once again as the ball flew into the stands.
Perhaps the best chance of the night again resulted from the play of Horan in the 53rd minute, as defender Emily Fox whipped in a ball into the box that cleanly met the boot of Horan. A one-time shot aimed at the bottom right corner of the goal was denied by the gloves of a diving Musovic. The Swedish keeper was on a mission to restrict as many American goal chances as she could.
Subsequent American chances over the next 30 minutes by forwards Sophia Smith and Alex Morgan were bottled up by Musovic and the score remained even at a still zero. The Sweden goal was Musovic’s home and she was not keen on anyone entering.
The first real chance by the Swedish side presented itself in the 85th minute as forward Sofia Jakobsson ended a stellar build up play with a left footed strike via a smooth cut back. Thankfully for the on-edge United States side, the attempt was blocked by goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher. Naeher, who would be a pivotal part of the Americans’ penalty victory chances, did not have to deal with much in open play from the Swedish attack, as Jakobsson’s try was the only shot attempt registered for the side.
Then, in the 89th minute, it seemed that the United States had finally found what they had been looking for for almost an hour and a half. In a sickly twisted moment of déjà vu, Morgan took the place of Horan and delivered an on-target header. The potential goal would surely all but confirm the United States’ place in the quarterfinals and eliminate Sweden from the tournament. Musovic, on the other hand, decided that Sweden’s World Cup run was not quite finished and displayed immaculate reflexes in a diving block to crush American dreams once again.
Extra time was next, 30 more minutes of high level soccer to determine who would be Japan’s opponent in the next round.
Musovic kept riding her hot streak of goalkeeping excellence and registered key saves in the 96th, 101st (twice), and the 107th minute. Locked at a score of 0-0 after 30 minutes of extra time, the United States and Sweden prepared for a penalty shootout.
For all of her spectacular saves in the first 120 minutes of open play, Musovic struggled to stop any American penalties in the shootout. After a crucial miss from Swedish defender Nathalie Björn, the Americans were in the driver’s seat after 3 rounds as they were up 3-2. However, with a chance to extend the United States’ lead to 4-2, substitute veteran forward Megan Rapinoe sailed her try over the right side of the crossbar.
Despite the crucial miss from Rapinoe, Naeher regained the momentum for the Americans instantly with a fantastic save on the next Swedish try. That meant that with a successful penalty from Smith, who had struggled since opening the World Cup with two goals and an assist, the United States would win the penalty shootout 4-2, win the game overall, and advance to the quarterfinals.
Smith chose the right way to shoot, as she aimed to the right and Musovic guessed left. Unfortunately, Smith’s attempt rocketed above the same right side of the crossbar as Rapinoe’s. Sweden then converted the ensuing penalty and made sure the shootout continued.
Even though goalkeeper Naeher herself would score a penalty, experienced defender Kelly O’Hara’s penalty try bounced off the right woodwork. All Sweden needed was a converted penalty to win the shootout 5-4 themselves.
Lina Hurtig stepped up the penalty spot understanding the stakes. Make the penalty and her squad advances. Miss the penalty and the Americans were given another chance to win.
In an ending that seemed to be ripped right out of a movie, Hurtig’s shot appeared to be blocked by a diving Naeher. However, the force of Hurtig’s attempt forced the ball ever-so-slightly across the goal line, giving the Swedes the victory. After a quick review by the referees, the goal was confirmed and Sweden escaped as the victors.
“We just lost the World Cup by a millimeter,” Naeher said after the game, “It’s going to hurt for a long time but proud of the fight of the group”.
As joy exploded for the Swedes, heartbreak ensued for the Americans. For the first time since 2011, a nation not named the United States would host the trophy at the end of the tournament. The back-to-back World Cup champions would not make it a three-peat, and would surely return home to American soil with an avalanche of questions.