America’s superstars can’t carry this squad forever.
There was a moment shortly after the start of the second half of the U.S. women’s national soccer team’s semifinal defeat to archrivals Canada that encapsulated the frustration of the Americans’ 2020 Olympics.
In the 48th minute, U.S. winger Tobin Heath and fullback Crystal Dunn combined down the left sideline, not too far into the Canadian half. The move got the pair past the first line of Canada’s defense and into space. Canada was retreating toward its own goal; Rose Lavelle was charging into the area they had just vacated in front of the goal. After their interplay freed Dunn on the outside, Heath tried to provoke a decision from the next defender, charging forward with abandon to force the Canadian to choose between staying with Dunn and the ball or tracking the new dangerous runner. For a brief moment in what had been a cagey, physical affair for the first 45 minutes, the U.S. seemed to spot daylight.
Instead, Dunn’s early cross into the center hit Heath as she ran by. The ball deflected all the way past the endline for a Canadian goal kick.
Throughout the tournament, the USWNT—reigning World Cup champions, undefeated in 44 matches entering these Olympics—just never seemed to be quite on the same page. Despite the talent on the opposing rosters it faced, the U.S. always seemed first and foremost to be beating itself.
But for a while during Monday’s defeat there was hope. There is no other team in the world the USWNT has as much experience playing, or beating, as Canada, and that comfort showed. Even as it struggled, again, with its passing and attacking movement, there was a sense that it was less unnerved by the Canadian physicality than it had been in its earlier matches. The U.S. controlled this game in a way it wasn’t able to against Sweden, the Netherlands, or even Australia. The Americans had more possession time and three times as many shots and shots on goal as their opponents. The U.S. had never lost a competitive match to its northern neighbors.
But its advantage was a slight one, and it wasn’t able to convert it into goals. Most of its shots barely troubled Canadian goalkeeper Stephanie Labbé. Canada, meanwhile, turned the thinnest of chances into its winner. After a long kick forward was flicked on, U.S. defender Tierna Davidson was tracking back to clear it when Canadian substitute Deanne Rose ran around her blindside and tried to win the ball. Davidson made contact on the edge of the box. Rose fell, and didn’t even appear to protest as she pushed herself up, but a VAR review confirmed the USWNT would face a decisive penalty kick late in the second half for the second straight game.
Unfortunately for the U.S., its hero from the quarterfinal against the Netherlands, goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher, exited the game in the first half with a knee injury after an awkward landing. Her replacement, longtime backup Adrianna Franch, is a two-time National Women’s Soccer League Goalkeeper of the Year who was on the roster for the World Cup in 2019. She is more than qualified to step in, even in an Olympic semifinal, even if the glacial pace of the U.S. roster’s turnover since that tournament means she’s only appeared in a half dozen games for her country. But she couldn’t get to Jessie Fleming’s penalty kick. (It was a good one, and it’s unlikely Naeher would have stopped it either.)