Failures often bring about scapegoats, and the United States women’s national team’s exit in the Round of 16 at the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup is a historic failure. The penalty-shootout loss to Sweden on Sunday cemented the program’s worst finish at any major tournament (16 to date, between World Cups and Olympics).
How we got here, and where the blame lies, is far more complicated than anyone pointing fingers might want to responsibly admit.
United States head coach Vlatko Andonovski shouldered the brunt of the criticism throughout the tournament for his lineup decisions and in-game management. Ultimately, those tactical elements are the responsibility of the coaching staff. To suggest that he was never the right person for the job is revisionist history, however; he was exactly the right person for the task handed to him in 2019.
The U.S. women’s national team needed a makeover, and general manager Kate Markgraf sought Andonovski for his earned reputation as a tactical savant and superior recruiter. His resume in the National Women’s Soccer League proved as much, even if he was a self-proclaimed nobody 10 years ago.
But the great rebuild was halted before it ever really got started. A few games into Andonovski’s tenure, the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the world, including sports. Games were canceled and the Olympics were pushed back a year.
That is where things went sideways for the U.S. The Americans got smoked by Sweden in the opener of the Tokyo Games. They clawed their way back to earn a bronze medal after a semifinal defeat to rival Canada in a game that felt a bit like Sunday’s against Sweden: the U.S. did enough to win, but couldn’t finish the job. There has since been vague talk from a few members of that 2021 team about the difficult environment at an Olympics played in relative human isolation, but nobody outside that group will ever know the full story. What is relevant to present day is what happened next.
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