It might seem hard to remember now, but the last time the United States women’s national team played an soccer match in the Olympics, it ended in disaster.
Five years and one glorious World Cup title later, the top-ranked USWNT returns to the Summer Games looking to avenge that shocking 2016 quarterfinal ouster by Sweden — and potentially send a golden generation of star players out on top of another podium.
Team USA, unbeaten in a jaw-dropping 44 consecutive matches, is vying to become the first reigning World Cup champion to win gold at the following Olympics, though the feat this time comes with an interim of two years, rather than one, after the 2020 Games were postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
They kick off their tournament Wednesday (4:30 a.m., USA Network) — two days in advance of Friday’s opening ceremonies — against the same nation that defeated them in 2016.
“It was one of the worst results that the senior national team has had in a major tournament, and from playing in that game I know how disappointed we all were. And for me it has lit a fire,” U.S. captain and central defender Becky Sauerbrunn said this week, per Reuters.
“It was against Sweden, and so it seems kind of rich that we get to play them for this Olympics.”
The match in 2016 was tied 1-1 after regulation and two fruitless overtime periods, and Sweden prevailed on penalty kicks.
At the direction of Sweden coach Pia Sundhage, who had coached the U.S. to Olympic gold medals in Beijing and London, the Swedish team hunkered down and played a very defensive style. That inspired an emotional outburst from goalkeeper Hope Solo, “I also think we played a bunch of cowards. The best team did not win today,” that contributed to her banishment from the USWNT.
“It was devastating,” star forward Alex Morgan recently told FIFA.com, about the 2016 upset. “Having said that, we seem to have played Sweden at pretty much every tournament I’ve been involved in and they always play well against us. They beat us in the [World Cup] group stage in 2011 and in the quarterfinals in 2016, and I always see them as one of the toughest teams we face on the world stage. We’re all really looking forward to playing against them again.”
In addition to Sweden, the heavily favored U.S. team is joined in Group G round-robin play by New Zealand (Saturday, 7:30 a.m. ET, NBCSN) and Australia (July 27, 4 a.m. ET, USA Network). The Netherlands (No. 4), Great Britain (England is ranked No. 6) and Brazil (No. 7) loom as threats to win gold.
The Americans’ veteran roster, which has achieved so much success on the field while becoming influential advocates for equal pay, features very little turnover from the 2019 World Cup squad.
But this is likely the final major tournament for the likes of the 36-year-old Sauerbrunn, 39-year-old New Jersey native Carli Lloyd and 36-year-old icon Megan Rapinoe — and it might be the final Olympics hurrah for a group that includes Morgan (32), Tobin Heath (33), and Kelley O’Hara (33 in August).
The transition to the next generation of USWNT flag-bearers is already underway. Keep an eye on midfielders Samantha Mewis and Rose Lavelle, plus Crystal Dunn, a Long Island native who plays in an attacking role at the club level but starts at left back for the national team. Catarina Macario, a 21-year-old wunderkind who initially joined the squad as an alternate but is now a full-fledged member of the 22-person Olympics roster, has been hyped as the goal-scoring future of the team.