The U.S. women’s World Cup reign is over but it shouldn’t be.


The rest of the world has finally caught up to the United States.

The once-dominant Americans crashed out of the Women’s World Cup on penalties after a scoreless draw with Sweden in the Round of 16 on Sunday. It was the earliest exit ever for the four-time tournament champions.

A shootout in the 1999 World Cup — with a much different outcome — supercharged the U.S. team’s prominence atop the sport globally. The Americans beat China on penalties in front of a sellout crowd at the Rose Bowl and Brandi Chastain doffed her jersey in celebration.

Except for some desperate energy in its last match, this U.S. team appeared uncharacteristically timid and disorganized throughout this World Cup. The two-time defending champions squeaked by in the group stage with just a win against Vietnam and disappointing draws against Netherlands and Portugal.

The Americans have fallen victim to growing parity in women’s soccer. Former powerhouse teams like the United States, Germany, and Brazil were all sent home early while teams including Jamaica, Colombia, and first-timers Morocco surpassed expectations.

“I think it says a lot about the growth of the game,” defender Crystal Dunn said. “I think so many people are looking for us to win games 5-0, and World Cups.

“We should be proud that those days aren’t here. We, as members of the U.S. women’s national team, have always fought for the growth of this game globally, and I think that is what you’re seeing.”

After a bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympics and now the early exit from the World Cup, coach Vlatko Andonovski’s future with the team is uncertain as it prepares for the next big tournament, the Paris Games next year.

Andonovski took over the job for Jill Ellis, who led the Americans to their back-to-back World Cup titles in 2015 and ’19. He has gone 51-5-9 during his time with the team.

“I never came into the job, never came into the locker room with the mindset that I wanted to do something to save my job,” Andonovski said on Sunday, clearly shaken. “I was always focused on doing a good job, doing my job in the best possible manner to prepare this team for the challenges they have in front of them, and to prepare them to represent our country.”

U.S. Soccer issued a brief statement Monday morning.

“While we are all disappointed our journey has ended at the Women’s World Cup, we want to thank the players, coaches, and staff for their remarkable effort and to our fans both in the stands and at home for their unwavering support,” the federation said. “As we always do after a major tournament, we will conduct a review to identify areas of improvement and determine our next steps. As we look ahead, we embrace the hard work necessary to become champions again.”

In addition to a stronger level of competition, the United States also struggled with inexperience.

The United States brought 14 players to the World Cup who had never played in the event. Indeed, 12 of them had never played in a major tournament.

The changes were part of a U.S. youth movement after the disappointing Tokyo Games. Andonovski focused his attention on developing young players like Sophia Smith, Trinity Rodman, and 18-year-old Alyssa Thompson.

One player, midfielder Savannah DeMelo, had never appeared in a national team match when she was named to the World Cup roster. She appeared as a substitute in a send-off match against Wales in San Jose, before starting in the first two World Cup games.

Smith, the U.S. Soccer Player of the Year for 2022, had a good start to the tournament with two goals against Vietnam but went scoreless the rest of the way. She missed her penalty attempt against Sweden along with Megan Rapinoe and Kelley O’Hara.

The only other scorer for the team was co-captain Lindsey Horan, who also had two goals.

“Even though it didn’t end up the way we wanted, it’s a huge experience for some of these young players,” Andonovski said. “There’s a group of players that will make a mark in the future.”

There was backlash on social media and among pundits following the match, critical of both Andonovski’s tactics and Rapinoe’s reaction after missing her penalty attempt. She laughed, explaining later that she had fully expected to make it.

Rapinoe, the outspoken star of the 2019 World Cup known for her iconic victory pose, wasn’t the same game-changer she once was. At 38, and after a pair of World Cup titles and an Olympic gold medal, her role had diminished. She announced before the tournament started that it would be her last World Cup.

“I know it’s the end and that’s sad, but to know this is really the only time I’ve been in one of these, this early, says so much about how much success I’ve been able to have and just how much I’ve loved playing for this team and playing for this country,” Rapinoe said, tears in her eyes. “It’s been an honor.”

After the match defender Julie Ertz also said it was likely her last time wearing the U.S. jersey.

It was also clear the United States was missing several important players.

Mallory Swanson, the team’s top scorer this year, tore her patella tendon in an exhibition match with Ireland in April. Becky Sauerbrunn, the team’s captain, announced in June that she was unable to get over a foot injury in time for the tournament.

Dynamic forward Catarina Macario, hailed among the future stars of the team, tore her ACL last year playing with French club Lyon and didn’t recover in time.

In the end, however, the United States struggled most with its identity. It could never muster the confidence of teams past — including the legendary ‘99ers.

“All we want to do is be successful and be able to uphold the legacy that this team deserves. We failed at that this time,” said forward Alex Morgan, who like Rapinoe was playing in her fourth World Cup. “But I’m still hopeful about the future of this team. I still stand by that. This game is evolving, the game is getting better and that’s not going to change. It’s only going to continue.”

Megan Rapinoe wanted a different finish for her final Women’s World Cup. Even with the disappointing conclusion, she was grateful for her wildly successful run with the U.S. national team.

Rapinoe’s World Cup career ended on Sunday in the Round of 16 when the United States lost to Sweden on penalties after a scoreless draw. The outspoken 38-year-old announced last month that this would be her last international tournament.

“I wish we were moving on and I could guarantee a championship and all that,” she said. “But it doesn’t take anything from this experience, or my career in general. I feel so lucky and so grateful to play as long as I have, and to be on the successful teams that I have.”

Known for her bright hair colors, Rapinoe teared up as she spoke to reporters after the match. She missed her penalty kick, as did teammates Kelley O’Hara and Sophia Smith.

“I’m ready in a lot of ways to be done,” she said. “I feel at peace with that. So it’s sad but I’m OK.”

At this World Cup, Rapinoe had taken on more of a reserve role. She made her 200th appearance with the team as a substitute in a 3-0 victory over Vietnam to open the tournament. She was also a sub in the final group match against Portugal, a disappointing scoreless draw.

After the loss to Sweden, captain Lindsey Horan and defender Julie Ertz were among those who embraced Rapinoe on the field.

“I just said I love her,” Horan said, welling up.

“It’s been a journey with her,” Ertz said. “She’s been an incredible player for so long. I just wanted to make sure I was able to tell her that.”

It was the team’s earliest exit from the World Cup. The United States won the last two tournaments and four overall, most of any nation. The team had never finished lower than third.

At the 2019 World Cup in France, Rapinoe scored six goals, including a penalty in a 2-0 victory over the Netherlands in the final. She also finished with three assists and claimed both the Golden Boot and the Golden Ball for the best overall player.

Her victory pose, arms outstretched, became one of the iconic images of the dominant U.S. run.

Rapinoe also led the U.S. women’s long fight for equal pay with their male national team counterparts. Both teams reached contracts with U.S. Soccer last year that paid them equally and split tournament prize money.

As a fierce advocate for social justice issues, including gender equity and LGBTQ rights, she was awarded the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, by President Joe Biden last year.

After joining the national team in 2006, she finishes her international career with two Women’s World Cup titles and an Olympic gold medal. She also won the Ballon d’Or and the Best FIFA Women’s Player awards — the game’s top individual honors — for her play in 2019.

“I don’t think there are enough words to talk about Megan and her impact on this sport,” forward Lynn Williams said. “From equality to human rights, the list goes on and on. So that’s going to sting a little bit, not to see her on this team and wearing the crest anymore.

“I can’t wait to see what she’s going to do in her next life, her next career.”

At her final World Cup, Rapinoe was the elder stateswoman on a team that had 14 players appearing for the first time in the tournament. Like former teammates Abby Wambach and Carli Lloyd, she now will step aside to make way for the next generation.

Rapinoe is not necessarily done with soccer. She has said she will play out the season with her club team, OL Reign in the National Women’s Soccer League. She may say goodbye to fans back home in a few more U.S. matches to wrap up the year.

But her tournament days are over. In her 202 overall appearances for the United States, she has scored 63 goals.

“I feel really proud, really proud of this team, really proud of all the players I’ve played with. I’ve just loved every moment of my career,” she said. “I’ll just miss it to death, but it also feels like the right time. And that’s OK.”

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