U.S. women thrashed by Sweden in stunning Olympic defeat

U.S. forward Christen Press reacts to Sweden scoring the last of three goals in a Tokyo Olympics group stage match.
U.S. forward Christen Press reacts to Sweden scoring the last of three goals in a Tokyo Olympics group stage match.

The United States suffered a humbling 3-0 defeat against a superior Sweden team Wednesday in an Olympics women’s soccer Group G opener. It was the USWNT’s first loss in 44 matches dating back to January of 2019.

The gulf in effort, organization and athleticism between the defending World Cup champions and their Scandinavian rivals was clear from the opening minutes and grew increasingly obvious as the clock ticked past 90 minutes, spoiling Vlatko Andonovski’s major tournament debut as USWNT head coach.

The Swedes dominated every phase of play, inflicting the manner of total game control the United States has traditionally imposed on its international opponents. Head coach Peter Gerhardsson  set his squad up aggressively, pressing the U.S. high and utilizing Sweden’s advantages in speed and size to cause constant problems for a veteran American backline with an average age over 30 and an average height under 5-foot-6.

After a flurry of early chances created but not finished off by Sweden, the opening goal came in the 25th minute when Sofia Jakobsson swung a cross toward the near post where a charging Stina Blackstenius headed the ball across American goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher into the U.S. net.

After the first half, color commentator and two-time World Cup champion with the USWNT, Julie Foudy, described the performance as, “About as sloppy and lethargic as I have seen from the United States in a very long time.”

Despite a pair of halftime substitutions from Andonovski to inject the grit and experience of Julie Ertz and Carli Lloyd, his squad continued to have no answer for Sweden’s high press. Blackstenius doubled the lead early in the second half, finishing off a corner kick not dealt with by the American defenders. Then, in the 72nd minute, 5-11 midfielder Lina Hurtig killed the game off with Sweden's third goal off a towering header.

Sweden outshot the United States 17 to 13 with nine efforts on target to the Americans’ five. The best U.S. chance to get a foothold in the match came near the stroke of halftime when Rose Lavelle knocked a header off the upright of the goal. The remaining best USWNT scoring opportunities came late in the second half when the result was no longer in doubt.

“We got our ass kicked a little bit,” said U.S. forward Megan Rapinoe, who came on as a substitute with 26 minutes to go in the match. “I think we just looked a little bit nervous. I think we played a little bit tight, and we don’t ever need to play that way.”

The last two matches of Olympic competition for the United States have both ended in crushing losses to Sweden, five years apart. At the 2016 Rio Olympics, Sweden, then coached by former USWNT manager Pia Sundhage, emerged victorious from a quarterfinal round penalty shootout hand the U.S. its earliest elimination at any major tournament in the history.

In Rio, Sweden under Sundhage played a defensive-minded game to smother and frustrate the United States. On Wednesday inside Tokyo Stadium, the same venue that will host the Opening Ceremony in two days’ time, Gerhardsson brought the fight to the world champs.

“They’re obviously physical, they’re very organized, they’re hard to break down,” U.S. forward Alex Morgan said of the team that’s become something of a nemesis for the U.S. women. Sweden dealt the U.S. its first non-victory of the Andonovski era in April with a 1-1 draw in an international friendly. Wednesday was the ninth time the nations have met in major competition, the most of any matchup involving the USWNT.

The biggest reassurance for Andonovski and company is that as many as three teams from each four-nation group will advance to the knockout stage in Japan. The U.S. has two remaining group stage matches – Saturday against New Zealand and Tuesday against Australia – to rebound from the loss to Sweden and continue its pursuit of a historic double. No nation has ever held the Women’s World Cup and the Olympic title at the same time.