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2023 Women's World Cup

Round of 16, Day 2: Sweden hand U.S. their earliest ever World Cup exit; Netherlands advance

Jenna Watson-USA TODAY Sports.

The second day of the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup knockout rounds started with Netherlands defeating South Africa, and finished with the U.S. women’s national team’s earliest ever exit from a World Cup after losing on penalties to Sweden.

Couldn’t watch and need to know what the big story is? This is what happened on the second day of the World Cup Round of 16.

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United States 0, Sweden 0 (PKs 4-5)

The Big Story: After the United States made it through the group stage by the skin of their teeth, a tactical change in formation in the Round of 16 against Sweden helped them find the form they’ve been lacking all tournament. Unfortunately, this wasn’t enough to eke out the win and the U.S. was eliminated in a wild penalty kick off that required a VAR check to determine if the winning kick even crossed the line.

The Big Moment: United States keeper Alyssa Naeher had stepped up and not only made two big saves during the penalty kick shootout, but took and converted a shot herself. Her U.S. teammates – including Megan Rapinoe, Sophia Smith, and Kelley O’Hara – failed to convert three penalties, however, and the opportunity was handed to Sweden. When Lina Hurtig stepped up to take her shot, it initially looked like Naeher had saved it. But the ball bounced off the crossbar and down so close to the line that it raised immediate arguments over whether it had crossed it. After a tense moment where the head official spoke to VAR for confirmation, the goal was awarded and Sweden survived to advance as Naeher and the U.S. were left standing in utter disbelief. 

What it means: The United States needed to make tactical changes this match and they did so by coming out in a 4-2-3-1 with Emily Sonnett added to the lineup as part of a midfield double pivot next to Andi Sullivan. The change may have been prompted by the suspension of Rose Lavelle via yellow card accumulation, but the structural change served the United States well and they looked more dangerous from the first whistle. It allowed better spacing across the lines, more passing angles, and some added defensive stability which allowed the U.S. to press and counter in a way that Sweden just couldn’t answer. In other words, they were finally able to play like a cohesive team for the first time all tournament. 

Although the United States tested Swedish keeper Zećira Mušović enough to require 11 saves, they couldn’t find the back of the net and the game went through extra time into penalty kicks.

Somewhat shockingly, it was Rapinoe, Smith, and O’Hara who failed to convert their penalties for the United States. Rapinoe and Smith went high over the bar while O’Hara pinged off the post. Although Naeher put forth about as heroic an effort as one could in goal, those missed shots were just enough to give Sweden the opening to finish the task.

It’s hard to imagine a more devastating way to leave a tournament than via a penalty kick in a shoot out that required a VAR check to even determine if it was converted. If the United States can take any comfort from this match it’s that they actually played much more like the U.S. of old than they ever have this tournament. Sweden is a tough opponent worthy of a World Cup final. They’re number three in the world, so this is no embarrassing upset or Cindarella story. Ultimately, the United States showed some grit and kept Sweden on their back foot through much of the game, but the lack of finishing that’s haunted them for the past year ultimately doomed them. As a result, they have been eliminated earlier than they ever have in the World Cup. 

This tournament as a whole has raised big questions about the United States overall. Their offense hasn’t been firing on all cylinders for a while now, and it took far too long into the tournament to figure out tactics that actually worked for the team. Head coach Vlatko Andonovski’s future with the United States was already questioned by many heading into the tournament so it’s hard not assume those questions will only grow louder now they’ve been eliminated. 

For Sweden, they can take comfort in the fact they did just enough to edge the United States out. They earned this win, as ugly and as unconvincing as it might have been for both sides. Still, they relied heavily on Mušović’s clinic in goal to keep them in this game, as their own offense was quiet on the day. A quarter-final against Japan – who have been absolutely clinical with their finishing all tournament – will be an extremely tough match. There’s no question Mušović will once again have her hands full if Sweden is going to advance further.

— Bekki Morgan

Netherlands 2, South Africa 0

The Big Story: The Netherlands made it consecutive trips to the quarterfinals of the World Cup with a 2-0 victory over South Africa. Jill Roord gave the 2019 runners-up the lead in the 9th minute and Lineth Beerensteyn–who was injured in the group stage–doubled the lead in the second half. The Netherlands will next face Spain but will do so without Danielle van de Donk whose second yellow card of the tournament means an automatic suspension.

The Big Moment:  The second goal made the Dutch more comfortable and it came from Beerenstyn. It was a hopeful, left-footed shot from out wide that appeared to be an easy catch for Kaylin Swart but she missed it and then slammed both hands to the pitch as she watched her misplay roll into the goal for the backbreaker.

What it means:  Defensive issues dotted both Netherlands goals. On the opener, Lieke Martins headed a corner kick toward the near post. Lebohang Ramalepe had it covered but her clearance popped up in the air and to her right allowing Roord to swoop in and easily head it home to make it 1-0.

Netherlands should be gaining confidence as they head to the last 8 having yet to concede a goal from open play. That’s not to say they did not give South Africa some chances. Thembi Kgatlanta specifically had many brilliant moments including one in the closing moments of the first half when she got in behind the Dutch defense and tested Daphne van Domselaar who was able to make the save and keep her side ahead into the half.

The short-term test for coach Andries Jonker will be to navigate the midfield battle without van de Donk. Spain will want to possess their way through Netherlands’ crowded midfield and van de Donk is a key cog in keeping that from happening.

South Africa depart the country’s second World Cup in much better position than its first. After being outscored 8-1 in three losses in 2019, they escaped their group this time with some of the wildest swings imaginable. The final swing was Kgatlana’s stoppage-time goal that sunk Italy and vaulted Banyana Banyana into the Round of 16. South Africa also lost two players to injury in the first half and thus were two subs and two sub windows down coming out of halftime. They showed some signs of late life but ultimately spent too much of the second half sitting back and allowing Netherlands to casually knock the ball around as high as the start of South African defensive territory. Next up is a trip to Cincinnati and Chicago where South Africa is scheduled to take on the U.S. in a pair of September friendlies.

— Dan Lauletta

The Quarterfinals:

Spain vs. Netherlands on August 10 at 9 pm ET

Sweden vs. Japan on August 11 at 3:30 am ET

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