This article is part of our Tokyo Olympics series.
History says the U.S. women’s soccer team tends to perform best with its back against the wall. Each of the four times they failed to win a World Cup, the Americans followed by winning the Olympic gold medal the following year. And after their worst finish in a major tournament — a loss to Sweden in the quarterfinals of the 2016 Rio Olympics — they regrouped and delivered arguably their most dominant World Cup performance yet, finishing undefeated in 2019.1
Going into this year’s Tokyo Olympics, the U.S. faced no similar concerns about its ability to win the gold medal. This team was as dominant as ever in the last major tournament, and the 2021 version is essentially running it back from the 2019 World Cup. Seventeen of 18 players on the Olympic roster were in France two years ago, with the lone exception of midfielder Kristie Mewis. Those players have averaged 111 international appearances; the team headed into the 2019 World Cup had recorded 80 caps per player.
Curiously, though, preserving World Cup championship rosters has not been a recipe for success in the past. Both times the Americans have competed in the Olympics the year after a World Cup title, they kept the vast majority of the roster together — 15 of 18 players in 2000 and 14 of 18 in 2016. And both of those teams underachieved in the Olympics, losing in the gold-medal match in 2000 and in that disappointing quarterfinal against Sweden in 2016. In sum, the Americans are 0-for-2 on Olympic gold medals when they’re coming off a world title and 4-for-4 when they’re not.
Three games into this tournament, the U.S. is still trying to outrun the dismal history of teams trying to follow World Cup titles with gold medals — every previous World Cup winner has failed, not just the U.S. The Americans’ 1-1-1 finish is their worst in a group stage in a major tournament, but they advanced on goal differential to face the Netherlands in a Friday quarterfinal, a rematch of the 2019 World Cup final. And even with their lackluster start to the Olympics, they’d have to be considered among the most dangerous teams left in the knockout stage. “We know we don’t go from being a really great team two days ago to not being a great team anymore,” defender Crystal Dunn said after a group stage win against New Zealand.
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This Olympic tournament got off to a calamitous start for the U.S., with a 3-0 loss to Sweden in the opening game. The Americans held only a slight (52 percent to 48 percent) edge in possession, managed just five shots on target out of 13 total (Sweden had nine and 17, respectively) and surrendered nine corner kicks. They deployed all five forwards from the 2019 World Cup run — Alex Morgan, Christen Press, Tobin Heath, Megan Rapinoe and Carli Lloyd — and yet never generated a consistent attack. “We got our ass kicked a bit,” Rapinoe told reporters afterward. “There’s a lot of stuff we can clean up — trap the ball, pass the ball to your own team is probably the first one.”
The U.S. encountered Sweden in the group stage of the 2019 World Cup as well, a Swedish squad also led by Hedvig Lindahl in goal and Stina Blackstenius in the final third. But in that match, the Americans came away with a 2-0 win. That such a similar group of players could appear so different after a world championship — albeit two years later, with the pandemic-disrupted schedule — is puzzling.
Team USA is older this time around, with an average age of 30.8 years, and it has faced some injury concerns, specifically with Heath and Julie Ertz.2 But on the journey to Tokyo, the veteran players on this year’s team hadn’t given new coach Vlatko Andonovski any reason to replace them.
The Americans entered this tournament 26-0-2 since the 2019 World Cup, scoring 92 goals and conceding just five. South Korea (in a friendly on Oct. 6, 2019) and Sweden (in a friendly on April 10) were the only teams to manage draws against the U.S. in that span. And the stars from 2019 remain among the Americans’ top performers. The 39-year-old Lloyd scored two goals and two assists in the last five tune-ups before this tournament, and Heath scored in each of the two final friendlies.
The U.S. came into this tournament on a 44-match unbeaten streak, and anything less than gold in Tokyo would represent a disappointment. But Lloyd’s comments after the 2016 Olympics loss were instructive: “It’s hard to go back to back — that’s why no one has done it. It’s unfortunate. We had the talent. We were playing well. That’s the way soccer goes sometimes.”
The Americans have plenty of chances left. But if they fall short again over the next 10 days after such a dominating World Cup, they’ll add another chapter to their inconsistent Olympic history. And come 2023, the world’s premier soccer powerhouse might find itself with something to prove again.