The United States women's national team defeated Australia, 4-3, in the bronze medal game to cap off their journey in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics on Thursday. The USWNT got big performances from longtime veterans Megan Rapinoe and Carli Lloyd. It was a fun performance and one that put a fitting cap on this Olympics. But, if anything, the tournament left more questions than answers about where the future of the national team lies.
Let's take a look at where the team stands with their next international competition on the horizon in the 2023 World Cup.
What went wrong in pursuit of gold?
The Americans got off to a rocky start in their group stage, dropping their opening match to Sweden (a gold medal finalist), 3-0. A bounce back 6-1 blowout win over New Zealand provided the squad some small confidence, but still left the group looking lackluster in front of goal to close out their group stage with a scoreless draw against Australia.
After closing out their group play with unfamiliar low blocks, and lack of attack, the team was presented with the familiar challenge of knockout rounds. For a team that typically gets stronger as they advance during International competitions, the 2020 Tokyo squad for USA still never quite hit a stride in Japan.
The team advanced out of quarterfinals thanks to goalkeeping heroics from starting keeper Alyssa Naeher. They fizzled out of the semifinal after a failure to be clinical in front of goal against Concacaf rivals Canada, and then saved their best performance for a final game they didn't expect to be in.
So who's to blame?
Well, ultimately everybody. Naturally the coaching always comes into question after tournaments with questionable finishes, but for a roster named with several veterans, there were plenty of underwhelming moments for many of the team's longtime stars -- and unimpressive performances from players currently in their prime.
Not a single U.S. striker cracked the top 10 of leading goalscorers during the Olympics. The team was lifted in the midfield by the return of Julie Ertz, an injured player recovering from an MCL sprain. Crystal Dunn started six consecutive games and played all but 16 minutes at outside back, leaving an uneasy feeling about lack of confidence at outside back depth with Casey Krueger not seeing meaningful time on the pitch and Emliy Sonnett not making an impact during her minutes.
Perhaps the constant player rotation and full line substitutions of the top line within game scenarios interrupted a flow of play that never actually quite developed for the U.S. offense during the Olympic campaign. The most questionable move for head coach Vlatko Andonovski and his staff, was having the team playing in tactics they perhaps weren't comfortable in. Some players, meanwhile, have said their own lack of form during the tournament is more to blame than anything else.
Also, other national teams have great talent and performed very well during these Olympic games. It's an international tournament, far stranger (and cooler) things have happened during this time than a dominant World Cup-winning side not winning a gold medal.
Will anyone get fired?
Not likely. The fact remains that this USWNT team still achieved far greater than their last Olympic appearance in 2016, earning a bronze medal and putting the United States back on the podium. Another inconvenient truth is that the 2023 World Cup is right around the corner, and 18 months isn't exactly the long and lengthy amount of time people like to say it is in effort to prepare for a World Cup, especially considering there is still an ongoing pandemic that ultimately affected the Tokyo Games. What does preparing for a World Cup look and feel like during a pandemic? We're all about to find out very soon.
Post tournaments also present life-changing scenarios for players who are in the latter stages of their careers. Are some of the current, longtime veterans of this team interested in committing themselves to another cycle and compete for a shot at another World Cup and Olympics? These types of decisions may come into play when looking across all the lines to build out what is a larger pool of athletes for a World Cup roster.
Who will we see in the build up to 2023?
Post Olympics will offer a brief break for players before they rejoin their respective club markets, and allow coaches to continue getting looks at more players. The third-place finish offered limited looks at players for the next cycle, though Lynn Williams and Tierna Davidson certainly made names for themselves this Olympics.
So who could we see in future camps? Catarina Macario, Casey Krueger, and Jane Campbell were all initially named as alternates in this Olympics and saw limited time on the pitch, but their overall team experience could come into play further down the line in preparation for another big tournament. Players who narrowly missed out on this Olympic games could see more action as well. Margaret Purce, Sophia Smith, Mallory Pugh, and Andi Sullivan are having solid club seasons and have senior team camp experience already.
Morgan Gautrat could make her return as a different veteran option for the midfield, after the team's current midfielders struggled to make their mark in games throughout this tournament. The two-time World Cup champion is quietly having an MVP-level season for Chicago Red Stars.
Young players making a name for themselves in NWSL club play could also be tapped for team camps. Ashley Sanchez, Trinity Rodman, and Morgan Weaver have been providing big performances during the Olympic stretch of NWSL regular season games, though it is possible they might not se time with the USWNT until January camps in 2022.