The final whistle, mercifully, was blown at 5:51 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time, which was 6:51 p.m. Japan Standard Time — and more effort, energy and precision went into the conception and composition of this sentence than into the whole of the Olympic women’s soccer game between the United States women’s national team and Australia.
I mean, I had to look up the Olympic time zone and everything.
There were enough chances and activity — the ball even found the back of the net once, albeit following an alleged rules violation — to assure everyone both sides had ambition to win, that the game did not sink to the level of the infamous Disgrace of Gijon, the 1982 World Cup game involving West Germany and Austria that still stains the sport’s great history. It wasn’t as far removed from that as it should have been, though.
Blame the competitive format. We could have been spared the insipid scenario of a mutually beneficial 0-0 draw had FIFA and the International Olympic Committee included four more women’s soccer teams for a 16-team tournament in which only the top two teams in each group would progress to the quarters.
Blame USWNT coach Vlatko Andonovski. There were those who argued, upon seeing a U.S. roster with an average age above 30 years, for a fresh approach from the national team. If they were watching early — very early — Tuesday, they saw one through bleary eyes: pure pragmatism.
Andonovski concerned himself not with polishing the U.S. approach nor gaining momentum. He chose expedience. It might work. England’s men’s team reached the final of Euro 2021 after a dreary 2-0-1 record that included only two goals in 270 minutes. But Tuesday’s game also might have been the best argument ever in favor of the snooze button.
Australia entered the game behind Sweden and the U.S. in Olympic Group G, reasonably secure that a draw would advance them to the quarterfinals as one of the two best third-place finishers. Ahead of the Aussies because of superior goal differential, the U.S. needed only a draw to reach the quarters as Group G runners-up.
So Andonovski dropped Sam Mewis away from the attack and placed her alongside Julie Ertz, giving the U.S. two defensive midfielders. That allowed Australia to control possession through most of the first hour but rarely to create genuine danger. When counterattacks developed for the U.S., they were short on outlets in the center and thus forced to play long balls forward that too rarely connected.
“We came with the mindset that the first goal was to win the game,” Andonovski said, “and the second one was to put in a good, professional performance.”
The U.S. in fact accomplished neither, but Andonovski did manage the heretofore unimaginable achievement of getting USWNT Twitter to commence complimenting previous coach Jill Ellis — more than two years after she led the U.S. to a second consecutive World Cup title.
I’m sorry but whether you like her or not Jill Ellis would never let the USWNT be passive and think it’s acceptable. Andonovski managed this game to not lose and to not win. That is not how you win the Olympics. https://t.co/Bcsqwut1kl
— Alex Westry (@alex_westry) July 27, 2021
The U.S. won their second World Cup under Ellis two years ago in France with a 2-0 victory over the Netherlands, the likely USWNT opponent in the quarters.
“It was a great test for us today to see that the players can execute the game plan very, very well,” Andonovski said. “So whatever we feel like we need to do to win the game, we’re going to present it to them and then let them do their job.”
Australia used its advantage on the ball to create a series of free kicks from areas that would be a threat only if USWNT defenders became needlessly careless, which they did not. The one true Matildas scoring chance came in the 18th minute, when teenaged striker Mary Fowler managed a looping header that struck the crossbar, just above U.S. keeper Alyssa Naeher’s outstretched hand.
The U.S. actually had more chances, including a clear breakaway in the 8th minute in which midfielder Rose Lavelle fed the ball forward to veteran striker Alex Morgan (above), who gathered it well in advance of two defenders, with only goalkeeper Teagan Micah to beat. Morgan grew impatient, though, as the defenders began to close and fired a shot from a few steps inside the box that Micah caught easily.
The disallowed USWNT goal came in the 30th minute, when a corner kick was played short to right back Kelley O’Hara, who fed an inch-perfect cross to Morgan inside the right post. Her header soared into the back of the net, but the assistant ref waved the flag for offside. A VAR review determined Morgan’s leaning shoulder placed her offside.
😳😳😳 ¡Nos quedamos con el grito de G⚽️L en la garganta!
🖥 Cosa de nada: el VAR entró en acción y determinó que había fuera de lugar
— Telemundo Deportes (@TelemundoSports) July 27, 2021
Had that been allowed to stand, we might have seen a soccer game follow. The shame of Saitama is that these typically are two of the more dynamic teams in the women’s international game. Australia features Sam Kerr, who led the NWSL in scoring in three consecutive seasons starting in 2017, then crossed the Atlantic to play in England’s Women’s Super League and did the same in 2020-21.
The U.S. fielded a front line of Morgan, Christen Press and Megan Rapinoe, who have scored a combined 232 international goals. None Tuesday, though.
When Andonovski subbed off Rapinoe and Press in favor of speedy Lynn Williams and feisty Carli Lloyd in the 65th minute, it seemed he might be looking for a spark to take advantage of a fatigued Australia team, which contains less depth and had played two tight, competitive games to open Olympic play.
Instead, the Matildas chose to spin the game toward farce with an unending series of meandering passes among their back four. That’s more or less what occurred in Gijon in 1982, after Germany grabbed the 1-0 lead that assured advancement for both them and Austria, leading FIFA to subsequently to stage all group-ending games simultaneously. And the U.S. allowed it to happen. There was no furious pressure from Lloyd or Williams, who sat back near the halfway line and watched. And, to be fair, on those occasions when the ball turned over to the U.S., defenders Becky Sauerbrunn and Tierna Davidson kicked the ball to each other more than a few times.
Morgan told reporters after the scoreless, soulless draw that the “tournament starts now”.
That’s as good an explanation of what happened against Australia as we’re likely to see.