TOKYO — The enduring image was Carli Lloyd, the team’s grande dame, on one knee, sobbing into her hands while her red-jerseyed rivals exulted a few yards away. The Olympics aren’t over for the US women’s soccer team, but their golden dream is, shattered by their northern neighbors who’d waited 35 years to kick the Americans in the shins in a big one.
“It sucks,” Megan Rapinoe said Monday night after the Canadians had won the semifinal showdown, 1-0, on Jessie Fleming’s penalty kick in the 74th minute. “You never want to lose, you never want to lose in a world championship, you never want to lose to Canada, obviously, and you never want to lose playing the way we did.”
Thus did the World Cup jinx continue — the reigning champion has never won the Olympics — and it tripped up the US for the third time. In 2000, the Americans lost to the Norwegians in the final. In 2016, the Swedes knocked them out in a quarterfinal shootout. This time the Canadians, who were 3-51-7 lifetime against the Yanks and hadn’t beaten them in 36 matches over two decades and never in a global tournament, blanked them.
There was a time when this result would have shocked the soccer cosmos, but no longer. Their defeat in Rio, the difficulty they had retaining the Cup two years ago (three one-goal decisions in the knockout round), and their opening 3-0 loss to the Swedes here made the Americans look quite beatable.
“We are not afraid of America,” Dutch midfielder Danielle van de Donk declared before her teammates took the US to a shootout in the quarters.
Neither were the Canadians, who’ve made the podium at the last two Games and gave the Americans fits in their previous two Olympic meetings, losing both in extra time.
“We were clear we definitely wanted to change the color of the medal, and we knew that was a massive, massive task,” said coach Bev Priestman, whose squad will play Sweden for the gold medal Friday. “I knew if the group believed when they stepped over the white line we could absolutely do it.”
The Canadians used to backpedal and bunker in when they faced the Yanks. This time, they went after them vigorously. No doubt they were emboldened when goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher, who’d saved the US singlehandedly against the Dutch, left after 30 minutes with a knee injury. But they also weren’t worried that the Americans would punish their errors the way they used to. They simply aren’t dangerous any more.
This US team doesn’t come forward in numbers the way it once did and doesn’t attack with imagination and flair. It’s telling that the US has had more goals disallowed in this tournament than it has scored.
“We don’t have the juice because the ball is banging off our shins,” said Rapinoe, “and we’re not finding open passes, not doing the simple things.”
The only time the Americans showed a spark was when Lloyd and Rapinoe came off the bench in the 60th minute and applied the jumper cables to their teammates. Here was Lloyd blasting one that keeper Stephanie Labbe tipped over the bar. Here was Rapinoe curving a corner that Julie Ertz nearly headed in. Then Tierna Davidson fouled Deanne Rose in the box, Canada was awarded a penalty upon video review, and Fleming drilled a lovely ball from the spot that backup keeper Adrianna Franch couldn’t reach.
That’s when the Canadians, beaten by the US in the 2012 semis in London, began having five-ringed flashbacks. They led that match, 3-2, with 10 minutes left in regulation on a hat trick by Christine Sinclair. But Abby Wambach badgered the referee about keeper Erin McLeod wasting time. The Americans were awarded a free kick, the Canadians were called for a hand ball in the box, Wambach converted the penalty, and the US won on Alex Morgan’s goal in the 123rd minute.
Rapinoe scored twice in that match, and Lloyd provided both goals in the gold-medal victory over Japan. They’re a combined 75 years old now with nearly 500 caps between them, yet they’re still the star-spangled saviors. It was Lloyd whose potential equalizer in the 86th minute hit the crossbar off a Rapinoe feed. Where was everyone else when the game was on the line?
The problem with winning global championships is that teams see no reason to refresh rosters. Why replace proven winners with rookies? Seventeen of the women who won the last Cup are on this squad.
Maybe the postponement of the Games for a year made a significant difference to an aging bunch. Maybe it was playing five matches in 13 days in sticky heat. Or maybe the Americans don’t have an answer for rivals who no longer are intimidated by them.
“We’re going to have to go back, look, and dig a little deeper to find out what is it that didn’t go the way we wanted,” said coach Vlatko Andonovski, “or what caused us to look the way we did.”
His players at least have a chance at something no US women’s team ever has won at Olympus — a bronze medal. They’ll play Australia for it Thursday. But that’s not what the Americans flew halfway around the planet for in the middle of a pandemic.
“It’s sad because these things only come around every so often,” mused Rapinoe. “It’s a tough one to swallow.”