For the first time in 20 years, the U.S. women’s soccer team is leaving the Olympics without a medal after losing to Sweden in Friday’s quarterfinal on penalty kicks after the game ended in a 1-1 tie.
While most of the team took the high road toward the exit, blaming themselves and crediting Sweden, goalkeeper Hope Solo took another route.
“We played a bunch of cowards,” she said. “The best team did not win today. I strongly, firmly believe that.”
So much for the Olympic spirit of fair play and sportsmanship.
Solo didn’t think it was very sporting or fair for the Swedes to spend much of the game with as many as nine players in front of their own net, less interested in scoring a goal than in preventing one.
The strategy worked.
“It’s OK to be a coward,” Swedish Coach Pia Sundhage said “if you win.”
U.S. Coach Jill Ellis agreed.
“As a coach you decide,” she said. “You either decide that you’re going to adjust to your opponent or you’re going to play the way you want to play. And for sure Pia adjusted to us.
“I can’t criticize that. At the end of the day the score sheet says the result, not the way you played.”
Added co-captain Carli Lloyd: “They had to do what they had to do.”
Solo’s problems with Sundhage might have started long before Friday. Ahead of last summer’s Women’s World Cup, Sundhage, who coached the U.S. to two Olympic titles with Solo as goalkeeper, was quoted in the New York Times making negative comments about three American players, including Solo, whom she called challenging, “especially when it comes to trouble.”
Solo has had numerous off-field incidents, including two misdemeanor assault charges in the state of Washington that have yet to be resolved. So Solo’s criticism might have been directed more at her former coach than the Swedish team.
“They didn’t want to pass the ball around. They didn’t want to play good soccer,” she said of Sweden. “It was very cowardly. But they won. They’re moving on.
“And we’re going home.”
Going home short of the gold-medal game for the very first time in the Olympics. Going home without the Olympic title Ellis so badly wanted to pair with the World Cup title her team won last summer. Going home without ever having spent a night in the Olympic village in Rio de Janeiro, a city they never visited.
“This one really stings,” Ellis said.
The U.S. had its chances, controlling the ball for nearly two-thirds of the game while outshooting Sweden 27-6. But the Americans found the net only twice in 120 minutes — and one of those didn’t count, after Lloyd’s header in overtime was erased by a phantom offside call.
“That goal was not offside,” Lloyd protested.
Moments later, Sweden had the apparent go-head goal also wiped out by an offside call.
The U.S. goal that did count came in the 77th minute at the end of a strange play in which a long pass by U.S. midfielder Tobin Heath missed its target and hit Sweden’s Jessica Samuelsson in the head, bouncing straight to Alex Morgan, who drove the rebound into the net.
Sweden’s lone goal was almost as accidental, coming on a counterattack in the 61st minute. After Sweden won possession deep in its own end, Lisa Dahlkvist split the defense with a surprise one-touch pass to a streaking Stina Blackstenius, who raced up the right wing and rolled a right-footed shot into the far corner just before defender Julie Johnston took her out with a tackle.
That was all either team would get through regulation and overtime. It sent the game to penalty kicks, which figured to favor the U.S. with Solo in front of the net and two of the game’s top scorers in Morgan and Lloyd, the reigning world player of the year, taking its shots.
But Morgan, shooting first, saw her shot stopped by Swedish keeper Hedvig Lindahl.
“Being the No. 1 penalty-taker, that’s important to boast confidence,” said Morgan, who was near tears after the game. “I failed in that respect.”
Solo was beaten by four of the five Swedish players she faced. So when Christen Press, shooting fifth for the U.S., drove her shot well over the crossbar, Sundhage and her assistants starting celebrating. Lisa Dahlkvist then beat an outstretched Solo for the win.
The last time the U.S. lost a penalty shootout was in final of the 2011 World Cup against Japan. Sundhage was the coach then, just as she was in 2012, the last time the U.S. won an Olympic title.
“According to Hope Solo, I think you should define what is a good team,” Sundhage said afterward. “That’s the best team in the world. But … we won the game.
“They played more attacking football than we did. We defend very well. And at the end of the day we won the game and that’s what all counts.”
Follow Kevin Baxter on Twitter @kbaxter11