Sweden Stuns U.S. Soccer Team in Olympic Opener

Sweden celebrated after going up 2-0 in the second half. The team scored another goal not long after.
Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

CHOFU, Japan — Five years. That is how long it had waited for this game.

Five years since the United States women’s soccer team’s hopes for an Olympic gold medal at the 2016 Rio Games were dashed by Sweden. Five years since a defeat that forced the Americans to look in the mirror and ask hard questions about their age, dominance and future.

Five years of waiting, only to end up right back in the same place.

The United States opened the Tokyo Olympics on Wednesday exactly where it ended the Rio Games five years earlier: reeling from a humbling, embarrassing defeat to Sweden.

Back then, it was a loss on penalties in the quarterfinals. This time, it was not nearly as close: Sweden dominated the United States, 3-0. Back then, Sweden had bunkered down and frustrated the Americans. On Wednesday, it simply dominated from one side of the field to the other.

“Did we expect this result tonight? No,” U.S. forward Megan Rapinoe said. “It’s frustrating, and it’s frustrating that it’s Sweden.”

“I don’t remember the last time we gave up a goal,” she added. “So to give up three is not great.”

Defender Kelley O’Hara acknowledged before the game that she and her teammates had been pining for another shot at the Swedes at the Games. “It’s what we’ve waited now five years for, to be back here,” she said.

They just never expected it to go like this.

Credit…Photographs by Emily Rhyne/The New York Times; composite image by Larry Buchanan

Striker Stina Blackstenius delivered a goal in each half for Sweden, a glancing header in the 25th minute and a point-blank finish in the 54th that felt like a just reward for a dominant performance at the tip of a Sweden attack that had the Americans on their heels almost as soon as the game began.

The United States tried everything to turn the tide. Positional tweaks to try to aid a midfield that was routinely overrun. Substitutions to refashion a largely toothless attack. Reinforcements to bolster a defense that was first stretched and then cut apart.

Even the most reliable of veterans brought on to help seemed to have little effect. Carli Lloyd and Julie Ertz — in her first appearance in months — came on at halftime, but Sweden soon doubled its lead. Rapinoe was inserted to offer a bit of menace on the wing, but it never materialized.

Even the departure — mercifully, in the Americans’ view — of Blackstenius, in the 64th minute, wasn’t a balm; her replacement, Lina Hurtig, merely picked up where she left off by rising for an open header and turning it into Sweden’s third goal eight minutes after coming on.

Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

The defeat was the Americans’ first in 24 games under Coach Vlatko Andonovski and their first against any opponent since a loss to France in January 2019. It will force them to scramble to recover in the sprint that is the Olympic tournament: Games against New Zealand (on Saturday) and Australia (on Tuesday) will arrive in quick succession in the first round, and tougher opponents like Britain, Brazil and the Netherlands could await in the medal round.

“You drop points in the beginning of a tournament, you’re in do-or-die mode,” Rapinoe said.

But first, the Americans will have to sort out just what went wrong at Tokyo Stadium.

Perhaps defeat should not have been a complete surprise. Sweden is no stranger to the United States — the teams’ meeting on Wednesday was their 10th in a major championship, including games in the last five World Cups — and Sweden could have been forgiven a bit of confidence after it turned in a strong performance in April against the United States in a 1-1 tie in Stockholm.

That game seemed, at the time, a rare misstep for a U.S. team for which losing is anathema. Until Wednesday, the tie in Stockholm had been the only blemish on the Americans’ record under Andonovski (22-0-1).

Credit…Alexandra Garcia/The New York Times

Wednesday’s win was a much stronger statement, the kind of one-sided performance that the United States is more used to dishing out than swallowing. And it will raise hard questions about Andonovski’s reliance on an aging core — every forward on the U.S. roster is over 30 — and on his commitment to past results as an indicator of future performance.

While the Olympics were delayed a year because of the pandemic, the U.S. roster is relatively unchanged since the 2019 Women’s World Cup. It includes not only its veteran front line but also question marks like Ertz, whose appearance was her first on any team in months after a leg injury this year, and Tobin Heath, who is only recently back from an injury of her own.

“I don’t judge the players by their age,” Andonovski said when he picked his Olympic roster. “They are either good, perform well and can help us win, or they can’t.”

He knows that dismissing his team as a gold medal favorite off a single performance would be a mistake. Seventeen of the players seeking gold in Japan, for example, were on the team that lifted the World Cup in France two years ago. A handful have gold medals from previous Games. Now, though, they will have to summon the kind of grit that delivered those prizes if they are to claim another one, and do it in the crucible of a scorching Japanese summer and the compressed Olympic schedule.

On Wednesday, at least, a few of the most experienced players were preaching patience.

“It’s going to be a hard tournament,” forward Christen Press said. “But we knew it was going to be a hard tournament.”

Credit…Emily Rhyne/The New York Times

Defender Becky Sauerbrunn, whose night went worse than most, sounded ready to move on from it quickly, even as she acknowledged that the tournament — at least from a United States perspective — had now changed.

“Bad night tonight,” she said. “We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us.”

FULL TIME. Sweden notches a huge upset, 3-0, over the United States! The celebrations are low-key in this empty stadium. The Americans hang their heads for only a second before lining up to shake hands with the Swedes.

90′ Press with yet another chance. She makes a deep run straight through the heart of the Swedish defense and gets on the end of a cross from the left side. But her header drifts too close to Lindahl, who fists it away. A minute later Lloyd sends her own header to the left of the goal and out of bounds.

Credit…Alexandra Garcia/The New York Times

87′ Press chests down a high cross from Rapinoe and lashes a right-footed shot toward the far post. It’s got a bit too much English on it, though, and twists away from the frame of the goal. The U.S. is keeping up the pressure, but Sweden is maintaining its composure. It’s a really impressive performance from the team in yellow.

Credit…Alexandra Garcia/The New York Times

81′ The Americans make a couple of late subs, with defender Tierna Davidson coming on for Crystal Dunn, and midfielder Kristie Mewis entering the game for Rose Lavelle.

75′ Two final subs for Sweden, which — given how this has gone so far — shouid have no trouble seeing this out from here.

73′ Lina Hurtig was being marked by Abby Dahlkemper … until she was not. When Hanna Glas floated a high, arcing cross from the right sideline, Hurtig was all alone to head it calmly past Naeher. The celebration was muted; Sweden is in complete control, after all. This feels out of reach for the United States and will be a stunning result for a team widely expected to win the gold medal.

72′ GOAL! 3-0 Sweden. Woof.

Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

71′ SO CLOSE FOR THE U.S.! Rapinoe got free again on the left side and threaded a pass across the mouth of goal to Press, who got a clean shot off toward goal. But the ball ricocheted off the left post and eventually bounced out of harm’s way. They really needed that one.

70′ Bjorn goes down (quite easily) after winning a header against Lloyd at midfield and takes her time getting up. Sweden is in full-on protect-the-lead mode now.

Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

69′ Crystal Dunn, high up the field on the left wing, slips a clever ball through the defense to release Megan Rapinoe to the left of Sweden’s goal. She tries to rip a shot, but the angle feels a bit too tight, and it’s saved easily by Lindahl.

64′ Two subs for Sweden, which (mercifully for the U.S. defense) withdraws Blackstenius.

On the other side, Megan Rapinoe comes on for Heath and takes up a position on Lloyd’s left.

61′ Lavelle blasts a left-footed bomb from deep inside the U.S. half into the open space behind the Swedish defense, where Carli Lloyd collects and dribbles right-to-left inside the box toward the goal. Lloyd’s lefty shot deflects off her defender’s foot, though, and dribbles away harmlessly.

60′ Lots of chatter and hand-clapping from the United States players now as they try to pin the Swedes deep for a change. But Lavelle and Horan get crossed up on an exchange, and back the other way we go. Within a minute, Blackstenius is wheeling in the area for yet another shot.

Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

54′ Amanda Ilestedt rose up highest out of the pack to knock a corner kick toward the U.S. goal. The shot bounced off the far post and dropped to the feet of Blackstenius, who blasted it into the roof of the net from point-blank range. Naeher was helpless, flailing her arms to no avail. That’s Blackstenius’s second goal, and again, it feels very much deserved for Sweden. The Americans have to scramble now.

54′ GOAL! Sweden doubles its lead! 2-0!

Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

54′ Sweden wins a corner, and nearly a free header off it, and then another on the far corner.

If this half is feeling a lot like the first, that’s because it’s playing out exactly like the first.

51′ Kelley O’Hara was looking up at a ball in midair when she received a forearm from a Swedish player between her shoulder blades. She was on the ground, holding the back of her neck in pain for a couple of minutes, but appears to be fine.

Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times
Credit…Alexandra Garcia/The New York Times

48′ Ertz is muscled off the ball by an Asllani and Rolfo sandwich, and the Swedes are in. The shot that results is a screamer but soars just over the bar.

Lloyd and Ertz coming on.

Ertz is on for Sam Mewis, and playing the deep midfield role. This is her first appearance since sustaining a leg injury in a club game months ago. Lloyd has replaced Alex Morgan in the central striker’s role.

All seven of Sweden’s subs stayed out at halftime, loosening up for potential work in the second half. The United States, meanwhile, retreated to the locker room en masse to discuss what went wrong.

Two players have suddenly returned, though, to loosen up ahead of the others, and they are an intriguing pair: Carli Lloyd and Julie Ertz.

If it feels unusual to watch the United States get bossed around for a half, well, it should. It doesn’t happen often. But Sweden’s tactics — pressuring Crystal Dunn’s side with Sofia Jakobsson and others again and again, and then using slashing cuts and leading balls down the center to split the stretched defense — have left the Americans on their heels again and again. Naeher has come up big a few times, but the U.S. attack has been invisible, and because of that the defense just can’t seem to get its footing and shrug off the pressure, which has been relentless.

Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

HALFTIME. That whistle might be a relief for the United States, which was on its heels for nearly the entire half and — despite Lavelle’s late header off the post — is probably lucky to go in at 1-0.

Megan Rapinoe, who watched the first half from the bench, bolted out of her seat and sprinted to the mouth of the tunnel to intercept the American starters as they walked off the field. She then stood there and high-fived each one as they headed for the locker rooms. Could she come on and make a difference in the second half? It’s clear the U.S. needs to make some tweaks.

45′ Oooooh that was close! O’Hara drives a screamer from just inside Sweden’s half, a hopeful ball that turns into a better and better one with every inch closer to Rose Lavelle. Lavelle, streaking in at the left post, meets it as it falls with a powerful header that beats Lindahl — and then dings off the left post and back out.

That’s the best U.S. chance of the half by far.

Sofia Jakobsson of Sweden tackled Kelley O'Hara of the United States in Sweden’s game against the US in April.
Credit…Linnea Rheborg/Getty Images

This game feels, oddly, a lot like the teams’ meeting in April in Stockholm, when Sweden scored on a near-post header in the first half and controlled the game for most of the night. That is, until Megan Rapinoe arrived in the nick of time (from the Americans’ perspective) to snatch a late penalty and a 1-1 tie.

Sweden surely left the stadium that night feeling good about its efforts against a team as good as the United States — just as it must about its first half today — and perhaps a little aggrieved that it didn’t finish off its win.

That game is the only one under Vlatko Andonovski, out of 23 matches, that ended in anything but a U.S. victory. The Americans have not lost to anyone at all since January 2019.

43′ Blackstenius gallops into open space behind the U.S. defense, glides under a beautifully delivered long ball from the right side and controls it with her chest into the box. It looked like a sure goal, but her final touch in the box was not particularly clean. The ball gets stuck under her foot, giving Naeher an opening to swoop in and grab it before any damage can be done. It could have been 2-0 there.

38′ Some delicate footwork by O’Hara at the top of Sweden’s penalty area leaves her defender chasing shadows and O’Hara a free look at a cross. Lindahl, however, gobbles it up before it can cause trouble.

37′ Alex Morgan was in a good deal of pain after being wiped out from behind by a Swedish player. She had her face in her hands, before her teammates helped peel her off the grass. She seems to be OK now.

Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

31′ A hydration break may be exactly what the doctor ordered for Vlatko Andonovski and the U.S. He’s in the middle of his players gesturing with both hands, and now is in a back-and-forth conversation with Heath.

Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

31′ Sofia Jakobsson, who had the assist on Sweden’s goal, has been a handful for defender Crystal Dunn and the U.S. so far. Wearing No. 10, she’s finding all sorts of space to work on the right wing, constantly calling for the ball, repeatedly getting it and charging aggressively into space. Dunn had to slide to deny another golden chance for Jakobsson, who had dribbled all the way to the mouth of the goal at full speed.

It’s been waaaay too easy for Sweden on the right side today. The goal showed that, but the normally unflappable Dunn is really having it rough.

26′ Naeher, to be clear, had no chance there. Point-blank header, and an early hole for the United States.

25′ That’s a well-deserved goal for Sweden, who had been creating one chance after another. It was only a matter of time. Jakobsson sliced a cross from the right side to Blackstenius, who let the ball glance off her forehead and into the net.

Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

25′ GOAL! Sweden takes the lead!

24′ And another! It’s Rolfo this time, sprung up the center in a quick exchange. Naeher again dives right to palm away her shot. But the U.S. surely knows it’s playing with fire here. Too many chances.

23′ Asllani forces yet another diving save from Naeher with a curling shot from outside the box.

21′ And just like that Heath drops into a deep-lying midfield role and Mewis pushes much higher, alongside Morgan.

20′ We’re 20 minutes in and it feels as if the U.S. needs to find a way to get Mewis and Horan a bit more of the ball, if only because that might mean Sweden’s midfield would have a little less of it.

How quiet is it in this stadium? You could hear a few individual gasps in response to Alyssa Naeher’s save.

Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

The United States closes its warm-up with a bit of cheering as the starters take one last sprint. Maybe they do it every time and no one hears it, but it’s still jarring to hear players’ voices that clearly, even after so many months of the pandemic.

Atmosphere will be an issue today, the U.S. defender Kelley O’Hara admitted in a conference call this week. And she said that she and her teammates would do their best to create a little of it — to get “loud” was her word.

“If we can be loud and communicative and just bring energy with our voices, because we’re going to be able to hear each other — which typically doesn’t happen when you step onto a pitch in a major tournament — I think that that can contribute to our energy and the vibe of the game,” she said.

We’ll see what we can hear: They have already tested the pumped-in crowd noise this evening. (Fake cheers! Not just for TV viewers anymore!)

The U.S. women’s national soccer team plays Sweden in its first match at the Olympics on Wednesday.
Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

Kelley O’Hara remembers all of it: the hot steamy day in Brasília, the resolute Swedish defense, the celebrations its players enjoyed and the despair of her own team, its dream of a second consecutive gold medal vanishing in a single, frustrating afternoon.

That match, a quarterfinal at the 2016 Rio Olympics won by Sweden in a penalty-kick shootout, was the last game the United States women’s team played in the Games. For five years, O’Hara said, she and her teammates have been itching to make it right.

“It feels like a big deal,” O’Hara said Tuesday. “It feels like the Olympics. It’s what we’ve waited now five years for, to be back here.”

It is perhaps fitting that the United States will open its latest pursuit of Olympic soccer gold on Wednesday with a game against Sweden. There is no team, in fact, that the Americans have faced more in world championship competition: six meetings in the World Cup, including the past five tournaments, and two more at the Olympics. Those collisions include the 2016 defeat in Brazil, which was the first time an American women’s team had returned from the Games without a medal.

“It’s a game and a loss that I’ve thought about a lot over the last five years,” said O’Hara, who started the game but watched its denouement helplessly from the bench after being substituted. “How are we going to get revenge? Hopefully we’re going to beat them.”

With games against Australia and New Zealand to come, the United States faces potentially its sternest test of the tournament against Sweden on opening day. The Swedes, the world’s fifth-ranked team, are the only side to deny the Americans a victory since January 2019, and the teams’ 1-1 tie in Stockholm in April is the only blemish on the unbeaten record of United States Coach Vlatko Andonovski (22-0-1). Only an 87th-minute penalty kick by Megan Rapinoe, in fact, prevented defeat that day.

Yet even for a veteran United States team with voluminous championship experience — 17 of the 18 players on the current squad lifted the World Cup two summers ago — almost nothing else about this year’s tournament will feel familiar: not the venues, and definitely not the pandemic conditions, which include the absence of family, friends and fans in the stands.

One thing that never changes is the stakes. The United States is trying to win the Olympic tournament for a record fifth time. But it also is trying — again — to become the first reigning Women’s World Cup champion to claim the Olympic gold. That was the goal in 2016, of course, but Sweden sent the Americans home empty-handed.

“I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t thought about that, and I think most people on the team have,” O’Hara said. “At the same time, I know what it takes to win a major tournament. For me it’s about focusing on the game right in front of me and the opponent that I’m going to play, so I don’t get too caught up in, ‘Oh, we’re going to make history, or do this or do that, or break this record or that record.’ To me it’s just, win the game.

“But that being said,” she quickly added of the possible World Cup-Olympic double, “it’d be very cool.”

Preparations for Wednesday’s match at Tokyo Stadium.
Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

Wednesday’s game is being broadcast by USA Network and Telemundo in the United States, and it is also available on the NBC Sports and Telemundo Deportes streaming platforms, and at NBCOlympics.com.

If you missed the match, it will be replayed on NBCSN at 8:30 a.m. Eastern time and 6 p.m. Eastern.

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