Vlatko Andonovski coached the women’s soccer team for 21 months and 24 games before experiencing what she went through on Wednesday.
And it wasn’t just any defeat, because a 3-0 loss to Sweden in the opening match of the Tokyo Olympics leaves the Americans with no margin for error in their next two group stage matches with New Zealand and Australia.
“It’s not something we expected,” Andonovski said.
“Obviously, we got into a big hole. But we are the only ones who can get out of it ”.
Forward Megan Rapinoe was equally raw.
“Leaving points at the beginning of the tournament, now you’re in a kind of life and death mode,” he said. “You have to earn points. Otherwise, we go home very fast. “
The United States went home from the Rio 2016 Games early after being eliminated by Sweden on penalty kicks in the quarterfinals, marking the first time the Americans were unable to play in the final for the gold medal.
But even that loss wasn’t nearly as shocking as Wednesday’s result, which ended a 15-game unbeaten streak at the Olympics and a 44-game unbeaten streak overall.
The three goals the United States conceded in 72 minutes were one fewer than they had conceded in 24 games with Andonovski combined. And with the Americans failing to score a goal for the first time in four years, Wednesday’s loss was the worst since Brazil’s 4-0 in the 2007 Women’s World Cup semifinal.
That’s not the kind of story Andonovski hoped to make in his first international tournament as a coach.
“I can’t remember the last time we conceded a goal,” Rapinoe said. “So awarding three is not great. But it is what it is. Now we know exactly what we have to do. We need to win these games. “
They won’t do it playing like they did on Wednesday, when they seemed to pass the ball to Sweden more often than their own teammates, they defended lazily and failed to complete a string of second-half scoring chances.
“They were capitalizing on our mistakes,” Captain Becky Sauerbrunn said. “We were giving away the ball and they were capitalizing on it.”
But the result was not the only unusual thing about the game.
There was no traffic around the Tokyo stadium, no fans circling in or out of the cavernous bowl. Players’ introductions were met with silence, not cheers. The national anthems sounded up to 48,000 empty seats.
If there was any doubt that these Pandemic-delayed Games would be different, it was dissipated in the first half against Sweden.
Players were audible from the second level as they yelled at each other. The goals and the great saves were recognized by the applause that the seven substitutes on the bench for each team were able to elicit, and by Andrés Cantor, whose characteristic cry of gooooooolllllll was heard as clearly in the stadium as it was on Telemundo.
It was a haunting picture.
“The atmosphere was not very good,” Rapinoe said.
“You go to a major tournament, that’s one of the best parts, just the buzz we get. We should be grateful that we even have a tournament, but, yeah, it definitely changed the dynamic a lot. “
If Sweden, which is ranked fifth in the world by FIFA, was bothered by that, it was not shown. Playing off the front foot from the start, the Swedes forced American goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher to make four saves in the first 24 minutes before a well-marked Stina Blackstenius finally beat her, placing herself in front of defender Abby Dahlkemper to head in with a perfect right hand from a Sofia Jakobsson cross from the edge of the area.
It was the first goal that the top-ranked United States had allowed in seven games and 592 minutes, or since the last time they played Sweden. But it wouldn’t be the last, with Blackstenius doubling the lead in the 54th minute, taking a corner kick that had hit the far post and using his left foot to get it into the upper net.
The last time the United States allowed two goals in the same game was in Andonovski’s debut as a coach, a time when the coronavirus was still months away from changing the sporting landscape. And when second-half substitute Lina Hurtig added a goal in the 72nd minute, it marked the first time the US gave up three goals since a 5-3 win over Australia in April 2019, three months before to win the women’s category at the World Cup.
The United States tested Swedish goalkeeper Hedvig Lindahl five times, but the left post stopped her two best chances, a header from Rose Lavelle in the last minute of the first half and a close-range shot from Christian Press midway through the second half. .
With the top two teams in each of the three pools, plus the top two finishing third-party teams, advancing to the quarterfinals, the US has a clear path ahead if they win their next two games. And the Americans have been here before, being beaten by Norway in their first Olympic match in Beijing before spending the rest of the tournament undefeated to win the gold medal.
But that was 13 years ago and four coaches. It won’t be that easy this time, not in a 12-team field that includes eight of the top 10 teams in the world and the four semi-finalists from the last World Cup.
“We have a lot of work ahead of us,” Sauerbrunn said.