U.S. women’s soccer takes bronze, but there’s ‘some soul-searching’ ahead

Carli Lloyd celebrates after scoring in women's soccer at the Tokyo Olympics.
U.S. forward Carli Lloyd celebrates after scoring against Australia in the first half of Thursday’s women’s soccer bronze-medal match.
(Fernando Vergara / Associated Press)

If it’s possible to put a positive exclamation point at the end of an otherwise dismal tournament, the U.S. women’s national team did just that Thursday, finishing the Tokyo Olympics with a 4-3 win over Australia behind two goals each from Megan Rapinoe and Carli Lloyd.

The victory earned the women a bronze keepsake of a tournament they’d just as soon forget; a medal that will hang like an albatross from the necks of the Americans, because the standards of the four-time World Cup champions and four-time Olympic gold medalists are so high.

But if it was the last competitive game for some, they gave a performance that was a worthy coda to a remarkable era. It was a game that brought back old times.

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“That’s what happens. Come out with a mentality, come away with hardware,” Rapinoe said. “There was some soul-searching to do. The biggest thing that was missing was the mentality piece and just the team camaraderie, fighting for one another.”

Lloyd was also mixed in her thoughts.

“I probably never wanted to be going home as much as I do [from] this trip,” Lloyd said. “It’s been a tough trip. COVID and just the way that things have gone. It’s been really challenging. But we’re going away with bronze, so it makes the journey worth it.”

With an average age of 30.8 years, the Tokyo roster was the oldest ever for a U.S. Olympic soccer team. And in the oppressive heat and humidity of the Japanese summer, the players looked at times every bit as old as their passports say they are.

Nothing seemed to go right in these Games for the Americans. They came to Tokyo ranked No. 1 in the world, having gone 2½ years since their last loss and four years since they were last shut out. Both streaks ended in the first game, a 3-0 loss to Sweden.

Carli Lloyd is about to hug Megan Rapinoe after a U.S. goal
Carli Lloyd celebrates with Megan Rapinoe after scoring against Australia in the first half Thursday.
(Andre Penner / Associated Press)

“We just tried to clear the air and try to figure out what was going on. Some of it was hard to hear. Some of it was amazing hear.”

— Becky Sauerbrunn, USWNT captain on two team meetings


Six days later, the U.S. was blanked again in a scoreless draw with Australia and finished the group stage with four points, fewest ever for a U.S. women’s team in a major international competition.

Goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher gave the team a chance to salvage the tournament with a spectacular effort in the quarterfinals, saving three penalty shots — one in regulation and two in a tie-breaking shootout — against the Netherlands. But the U.S. lost her to a hyperextended knee a half-hour into a semifinal that Canada won on another penalty kick, this one following a questionable foul call.

That performance — one win in the first five games — led to two team meetings last Tuesday, one with coaches and one for players only, said captain Becky Sauerbrunn.

“We just tried to clear the air and try to figure out what was going on,” she said. “Some of it was hard to hear. Some of it was amazing to hear. And this was the response that we had.”

Rapinoe, a month past her 36th birthday, got things started with the best goal of the Games, bending a corner kick over a leaping Lloyd and into the side netting at the far post in the eighth minute.

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After Sam Kerr tied the score for No. 9 Australia, Rapinoe put the U.S. in front to stay in the 21st minute, volleying a poor Australian clearance into the roof of the net. Lloyd, who turned 39 in Tokyo, made it 3-1 just before halftime, running onto a Lindsey Horan feed in the box and blasting a shot by Australian keeper Teagan Micah, a former UCLA standout.

Lloyd, playing in her 312th international game, second on the all-time list, got her second goal six minutes after the break and it was vintage Lloyd, outrunning Australian defender Alanna Kennedy to get to a Christen Press through ball, then beating Micah with a clinical finish.

It was the 128th goal of her career, tying Germany’s Birgit Prinz for fifth all-time, and it was her 10th in Olympic play, most by an American. It also proved to be the game-winner, marking the third time Lloyd has scored the final U.S. goal in an Olympic tournament — and all three have produced medals, golds in 2008 and 2012, and a bronze here.

“We lost our way a little bit. I don’t think it was one particular thing, but maybe we needed this tournament to go the way that it did for everybody to realize how important that culture is,” Lloyd said. “On paper, yeah, we look like the best team in the world. But talent doesn’t get you medals.”

The last game was the best of the tournament for both Lloyd and Rapinoe, two of the three oldest players on the team. But it felt a bit like an aging crooner playing his greatest hits one last time: It brought back memories of the good ol’ days while making it clear those days are gone.

“It’s always kind of been in the back of my mind,” Lloyd said of retirement.

“I haven’t made any official announcement. But obviously I am at the tail end of my career.”

A reckoning also looms for Sauerbrunn, 36.

“I’m going to get some time and distance and perspective and a lot of self-reflection and have some talks with people that I really trust that are going to tell me very honestly if I still have it or not,” she said. “But I’m not thinking about it tonight. It’s just about the bronze and celebrating my team.

“Not many people get to leave the tournament on a win.”

If Thursday’s game proves to be the last time the band plays together, it ended with an encore performance, an exclamation point that reminded everyone of how good the group once was.