USWNT needs strategy, smarts to win gold again

TOKYO — When the United States women’s soccer team’s starting lineup was released ahead of Friday’s quarterfinal against the Netherlands, many fans were dumbfounded.

The frontline that started the previous game against Australia — Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe and Christen Press — were all on the bench.

Coach Vlatko Andonovski’s reasoning speaks to the underlying story of the Americans at these Olympics — if it’s legendary, yet aging, core is going to secure gold here in a last-dance, last-chance run to glory, it will be achieved through guile, strategy and duct tape. That includes the starting lineups.

“I didn’t know if they started the game, if they would have been available at the end,” Andonovski said.

It was the end, Andonovski correctly predicted, when they would be most valuable. As the 2-2 tie went to a shootout after 120 grueling, humid minutes, it was his veteran scorers (along with 26-year-old Rose Lavelle) who were most capable of rising up — rather than crumbling — under the pressure of the moment.

Each was a second-half sub so they could do just what they did — step to the dot and bury shots into the back of the net, sending the U.S. to a semifinal showdown with Canada on Monday (4 a.m. ET).

“If you noticed, those are the four players that took the penalty and scored,” Andonovski said.

Megan Rapinoe (right) stands next to her United States teammates for the national anthem prior to their quarterfinal match against Netherlands on July 30. (Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

This is how it has to be for a team that is attempting — in its current form — one final run at a major international title. This crew has little to prove — they’ve already won two World Cups and an Olympic gold. But U.S. Soccer doubled down that an encore performance was possible.

Rapinoe (age 36), Press (32) and Morgan (32) have a combined 520 appearances and 224 goals for the national team. They can still be great players, just not for 90, let alone 120 minutes, of grueling knockout-round play anymore.

It’s the same for Carli Lloyd (39) and Tobin Heath (33), who started but were replaced by the others. Then there are backline mainstays Becky Sauerbrunn (36) and Kelley O’Hara (32). All but Press (who joined the team in 2013) won gold at the 2012 Olympics.

Story continues

“2012 is a long time ago,” Morgan said.

Back then no one wondered if she, or the others, could run for an entire game and still deliver late. Morgan was on her 123rd minute of play in the semifinals of those Olympics when she soared in the air to head in a game-winner against Canada in the semifinals. These aren’t tireless 23-year-olds anymore, though. They still have talent and tenacity and a will to win, but the challenges are different. Time is undefeated. It’s the opponents who have youth on their side.

The Americans’ median age is 29.5. Canada’s is 26.

“Right now it’s just getting our bodies ready,” Morgan said of the lack of rest days and quick turnarounds at the Olympics. “This tournament is incredibly short for six games.”

That means Andonovski has had to find ways to find rest so the team isn’t shot in these later stages. All 16 of the active roster field players have started and 15 of them have also not started (only Crystal Dunn has begun each game).

Andonovski even had to convince a notoriously competitive group to lay back in a 0-0 tie with Australia at the end of group play because that result was all they needed and they could preserve energy in the process.

“We are disciplined enough to do something that isn’t who we are but will help us get to where we want to go,” Andonovski said.

Crystal Dunn #2, Rose Lavelle #16, Christen Press #11, Megan Rapinoe #15 and Alex Morgan #13 of Team United States celebrate following their team’s victory over Netherlands on July 30. (Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

If that means the players best equipped to deliver on penalty kicks are fresh and ready, then so be it. Under the enormous stress of the situation on Friday, the Americans just shrugged. It was just another big moment in careers full of them.

“[I just think], ‘The worst that is going to happen is you are going to lose the whole thing,’” joked Rapinoe. “’You are going to lose the Olympics for your country.’”

She laughed. That’s how you win shootouts. That’s why you have Megan Rapinoe in the game.

There isn’t much public talk thus far about any potential finality to this tournament, but it’s there. By the time the U.S. heads to the 2023 World Cup in Australia, new blood will have to be pumped into the roster, perhaps drastically. Lavelle, at 26, is the youngest regular contributor. This isn’t a sport that is typically kind to 30-somethings.

The greatness of this group is beyond reproach. They’ve been victorious. They’ve been dominant. They’ve been champions over and over.

Now they are going for one last title, one last run for gold. No World Cup champ has ever followed up with an Olympic title. It may be their final accomplishment.

It can’t be done the old way, though, just run them out and watch them run people over. You can see that in the starting lineup.

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