Luke DeCock

For first time, US women’s soccer goes home empty-handed – DeCock

Sweden players celebrate after Stina Blackstenius, left, scored her team's first goal during a quarter-final match of the women's Olympic football tournament between the United States and Sweden in Brasilia Friday Aug. 12, 2016.
Sweden players celebrate after Stina Blackstenius, left, scored her team's first goal during a quarter-final match of the women's Olympic football tournament between the United States and Sweden in Brasilia Friday Aug. 12, 2016. AP

Well, the United States is really a field hockey country anyway.

In what may be the most shocking result of the entire Olympics so far, the U.S. women’s soccer team was eliminated in the quarterfinals by Sweden in a penalty shootout, Christen Press blowing the fifth U.S. kick over the bar and Hope Solo unable to stop the final Swedish attempt despite a lengthy (and crafty) delay to change gloves.

After heading into extra time tied 1-1, the United States appeared to take the lead, only to have Carli Lloyd’s goal ruled out, curiously. Moments later, Sweden appeared to answer, only to have that goal ruled offside, even more curiously.

For the first time since women’s soccer became an Olympic sport in 1996, the U.S. women won’t make the title game. They won’t even medal. They didn’t even come close.

It’s the single most disappointing result in American women’s soccer history, not to mention the earliest exit from an international tournament by a wide margin.

Playing in far-away Brasilia after a cross-country odyssey to Belo Horizonte and Manaus in group play, the U.S. women never even made it to Rio.

They were never particularly impressive in Brazil, posting tame wins over New Zealand (2-0) and France (1-0) before a surprising 2-2 draw with Colombia, and coach Jill Ellis will be second-guessed for a long time her decision to leave three-time Olympian Heather O’Reilly at home – and not really second-guessed, because the former UNC midfielder’s absence was questioned from the moment the roster was announced.

O’Reilly would have provided a veteran influence this team desperately needed after the post-World Cup retirement of players like Abby Wambach, Shannon Boxx and Lori Chalupny as well as a wave of injured and otherwise unavailable players that left only about half the World Cup roster available for the Olympics.

One veteran who was available, the controversial goalie Solo, managed to embarrass herself not only through her transparent gamesmanship before the final shot but her comments afterward, calling Sweden “a bunch of cowards” in a fit of bitterness.

Still, no matter who’s available and who isn’t, the United States has long sustained excellence through the passing generations, able to rely on the world’s greatest pipeline of female soccer talent for more than 30 years. Until now.

This defeat will surely mean the end of Ellis’ tenure as head coach, for even though the former N.C. State assistant coach guided the United States to World Cup victory last summer, anything less than gold is unacceptable by American standards, let alone the earliest tournament exit in American history.

Perhaps this is a blip caused by unusual turnover on the roster. Perhaps American dominance is waning, although that’s a precipitous fall from last summer’s World Cup triumph. Either way, it’s a dark moment for a group of players whose Olympic success has been practically metronomic.

The field hockey team, however, remains undefeated in Rio. It hasn’t won an Olympic medal since 1984. The soccer team had never gone home without one, until now.

Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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