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The U.S. Women Probably Weren’t Going To Win The Gold Anyway

Tournament favorites usually don’t win — even big ones like the U.S. women’s soccer team. Too many things can go wrong, as they did in the penalty shootout of the USWNT’s quarterfinal loss against Sweden in the Rio Olympics on Friday. A goalkeeper guesses the right way, a usually reliable shooter sends a penalty kick over the crossbar, and suddenly the team is out of the tournament. It was the USWNT’s earliest-ever exit from an Olympics or World Cup. With the Americans eliminated, the draw has opened up for new favorite Germany, which advanced to the semifinals later Friday, and host Brazil, which plays its quarterfinal against Australia on Friday night. (If Brazil wins, it could overtake Germany as the favorite, depending on the scores of its quarterfinal and Friday night’s other match, between Canada and France.)

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The outcome didn’t reflect the run of play: The U.S. outshot Sweden 26 to 3 and completed more than twice as many passes. U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo said after the match that the U.S. had played “a bunch of cowards,” a reference to Sweden’s defensive tactics. Swedish coach Pia Sundhage, who used to coach the U.S., responded, “It’s OK to be a coward if you win.”

Even if the American women had escaped Friday’s shootout with a win, they’d have had their work cut out for them, with just a 36 percent chance of winning their fourth straight gold medal, according to our Women’s Soccer Power Index projections.

U.S. fans spoiled by all the team’s recent success — the 2015 Women’s World Cup title, the 2012 Olympic gold — might have forgotten that past performance is no guarantee of future results. But those wins were hard-earned and never guaranteed. The Americans reached the 2012 gold-medal match after barely avoiding the lottery that is a penalty shootout in their semifinal against Canada, with an Alex Morgan goal at just about the last possible moment. And last summer in Canada, the team went scoreless in the first half of its first three knockout games before getting second-half goals. Just because the U.S. women sometimes made it look easy — like when they romped over Japan in the World Cup final — doesn’t mean it was.

In these Olympics, even while the U.S. women were going undefeated in their first three games and winning their group, their chance of winning the gold medal, counterintuitively, was declining, to 31 percent from 38 percent before the tournament. That was partly because the quarterfinal field was so stacked: All of the eight best teams coming into the tournament advanced from the group stage. Also, the U.S. showed some weakness in the group stage, including yielding a 90th-minute goal to Colombia that led to a disappointing 2-2 draw. The team’s rating declined slightly during the group stage from the start of the tournament. Sweden’s did, too, but the Swedes remained a tough opponent, with a 21 percent chance of beating the U.S. before Friday’s match — about the chance the Cleveland Cavaliers had of beating the Golden State Warriors when trailing 3-2 in this year’s NBA Finals. Upsets happen to favorites all the time. On Friday, one happened, finally, to the U.S. women at the Olympics.

Additional research by Jay Boice.

Carl Bialik was FiveThirtyEight’s lead writer for news.

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