AAs Sweden won a victory lap and Abba’s Dancing Queen blared the night away at Melbourne’s rectangular stadium, Alyssa Naeher stood with her hands on her hips in disbelief. It took several minutes – what felt like an eternity – for VAR to confirm the ball had crossed the line on the game’s final penalty.
It was nearly impossible to tell with the naked eye whether Swedish striker Lina Hurtig’s shot had crossed the line, after not one but two shots from the American goalkeeper. A disbelieving Naeher threw her hands in the air and shouted at her goalkeeping coach, Philip Poole, appearing to believe the video proved she had saved the penalty.
Later, she agreed that she needed to watch the replay. “It’s hard to end your World Cup by a millimeter,” Naeher said, adding that there are no moral victories even when a team plays well in a knockout loss.
“I’ve seen pictures and I still don’t see how [the ball crossed the line]”, said USA coach Vlatko Andonovski. “It shows how cruel this game can be sometimes and how much a small detail makes the difference between winning and losing.”
Those narrow margins were in USA’s favor five days earlier, when the woodwork saved them from a loss that would have knocked them out in the group stage. The Americans were mediocre throughout the group stage, but on Sunday they put in their best performance at this World Cup – and their best in a game that has scored in four years under Andonovski. It was too little, too late.
Even in the absence of suspended playmaker Rose Lavelle, Sunday’s performance was everything Andonovski and his players had promised but previously failed to deliver. Everything, that is, except ruthlessness in front of goal. The Americans pressured Sweden from the opening whistle and kept their foot on the gas, keeping the ball and pushing Sweden deep. Trinity Rodman produced her best game of the tournament, combining with midfield and forcing Swedish goalkeeper Zećira Mušović into several saves in the first half. Mušović made 11 saves in total during the game, including several sensational ones, to thwart an American attack that finally got some life.
“She was amazing tonight,” Andonovski said. “She made saves that few goalkeepers in the world can do. I don’t see any other reason why we are out of the tournament. I thought we had a great game plan, great strategy, we executed the game plan, we had the right people on the pitch to execute the game plan. And if I were to coach this group, this game again, I would probably do the same.
The United States could have done with this approach from the start of this tournament. Emily Sonnett started as a midfielder alongside Andi Sullivan in a double pivot for the United States on Sunday. Usually a central defender, Sonnett has played the No.6 role this season for her club, OL Reign, but she has never held the position for the United States before. In fact, it was his very first participation in a World Cup. It was Andonovski’s only big bet, and it looked like a masterstroke from the opening minutes.
Sonnett was one of the best players on the field. She was calm and error-free on the ball, even under heavy pressure from a physical Swedish midfielder. And she cleaned it all up defensively, sliding to cover Crystal Dunn when the full-back isolated in the opening 10 minutes. She was also quick to eliminate danger – as she did in the 30th minute, when a rare threatening pass from Sweden nearly found Stina Blackstenius’ feet.
Andonovski has shown pragmatism at times during his tenure in the United States, most notably in the group stage draw with the Netherlands, when he only made one substitution. On Sunday, he opted to replace the creative Lavelle with the defensive-minded Sonnett because, he said, the team needed a second No.6 to stop Sweden’s counterattacks. Everything about his plan seemed correct as Sonnett collected the midfield and blocked Sweden. But it was odd that it took until this game to figure that out: the double pivot had seemed the clear answer to USA’s struggles before, starting with a January win over New Zealand. Instead of sticking to this system, however, Andonovski continued to tinker throughout the spring, in part due to injuries. He decided to play the first three World Cup matches with Sullivan as his sole No. 6, and the American midfielder struggled as a result.
On Sunday, Sullivan and Sonnett sat behind Lindsey Horan, who took on the role of Lavelle’s No.10 for the day, and USA led the midfield. For 10 minutes before halftime, the Americans had 77% of possession time against 9% for the Swedes (the remaining 14% were deemed “in contention” by Fifa statistics).
“I think you saw a different team today,” Horan said. “I saw a very confident, poised and patient team that wanted to play. We controlled the game. It was amazing. I felt joy when I played. It was so nice. Everything clicked except for that last bit to put the ball in the back of the net. That’s football. It sucks, it’s hard and it hurts; It’s painful. Penalties are the worst thing possible, but at the end of the day account, I’m proud.