It was such a close call that even the replay needed to be seen twice to ensure the United States avoided elimination from the Women’s World Cup.
Years of preparation, weeks of games and almost three hours of world-class football were condensed into a single computer-generated picture, with the ball barely crossing the goal line and the United States officially eliminated from World Cup contention.
The verdict was a shocking conclusion in every aspect. That it resulted in Sweden winning a penalty shootout and advancing to face Japan in the quarterfinals was almost incidental, though certainly not to the Swedes themselves.
It’s possible that this loss may go down in history as the moment when the United States women’s football team, the most dominant force in the sport for decades, finally gave up the crown. Those who follow the sport closely may have predicted the outcome a long time ago. Over many years, the gap between the two regions has shrunk thanks to investment mostly in Europe but also abroad. Countries with rising powers like Spain, England, and the Netherlands, as well as more established ones like Sweden and Germany, no longer cower in fear when they see the United States on the other side.
Everywhere you turn, new rivals are rising to take their place. Even if they lose on Tuesday, three African countries, including Morocco, which only played its first game in the tournament last month, would have progressed farther than the United States this year.
Misfires, saves, and misses all occurred in rapid succession. The seventh American, Kelley O’Hara, struck the right post, while the seventh Swede, Lina Hurtig, shot hers low and hard to Naeher’s right.
When Naeher reached for the ball, he could only parry it into the air. As it started to fall, she saw to her surprise that it was really rolling back in the direction of her intended destination. Naeher retreated and swatted it again. She sprang to her feet, pointing at the official as proof that she had successfully whacked the ball out of the court.
The players and fans alike waited with bated breath to see whether she was correct. Stéphanie Frappart, the French referee, reviewed and rechecked everything. Mission accomplished. The Swedes made a hasty exit. The Americans remained stockstill.
The waterworks started right away. Sophia Smith, the teenage attacker, and Rapinoe, the midfielder, both had opportunities to win it for the United States, but their shots went high or wide of the goal. It didn’t take long for other players to start sobbing as well. The remainder just gazed out into space or at the floor, as if searching for a parallel universe in which what they had just seen had never taken place.
The U.S. women’s national team was eliminated in the round of 16, which will go down as their worst World Cup finish ever. They won only one of their four games, scored in two of them, and only in their final game looked like the contender they believed themselves to be.
It’s likely that Andonovski will take a lot of the heat for that. However, the squad as a whole will feel the loss of a potential championship run since they never got going and failed to score enough points.
There will be additional World Cups for Smith, 22, and other rising talents like striker Trinity Rodman and defence Naomi Girma. But Rapinoe, who is 38 years old, won’t. This was her last dance before the competition, and she said it would be her most difficult. In extra time, she had came in as a replacement and, like the rest of her squad and the opposing side, had hoped for a miracle.
Things may have turned out otherwise. Naeher’s consistent effort and strong saves had kept the Americans in the game. Zecira Musovic, her opposite number on the other end, had been superior: More than twice as many of the United States’ shots as Sweden’s were on target. Musovic, though, consistently denied them by reaching out to deflect dangerous strokes or stinging smashes. She blocked a shot from Lindsey Horan with her right foot in the 53rd minute and a header from Morgan in the 88th.
It was largely due to her and Naeher’s efforts that the second half appeared destined to end in a penalty kick shootout. However, the sides continued to press and probe on a night so tense that the audience went mute for lengthy periods before waking up in the dying minutes of extra time.
The United States is getting ready to leave and enter a future with many unknowns. It’s possible that Morgan and defensive back Julie Ertz may go as well if Rapinoe does. As with all of their past World Cup outings, they and their teammates will leave behind an experience that will be spoken about for years to come.