Well, it’s over. The Women’s World Cup keeps rolling along, but the United States is no longer a part of it. It’s a disorienting thing to type, and a head-spinningly difficult thing to process—but not the least bit shocking, at least for anyone who watched this team in their four World Cup games. During their abbreviated stay in Australia and New Zealand, the red, white, and blue struggled to score, never seemed to find the type of cohesion that makes the beautiful game beautiful, and was run by a coaching staff that couldn’t figure out its best lineup configuration. All in all, it is a failure. Losing at all is notable for the US Women’s National team. Losing in the Round of 16 had never happened before. This is the type of thing that will shake up the entire snowglobe that is US Soccer.
Heading into this tournament, the USWNT was undefeated in its last 14 World Cup matches. A 2015 tie against Sweden—the same team that sent them packing this year—was the last time it failed to win a World Cup game, and the 2011 final against Japan was the most recent loss. That all changed on Sunday, during the wee hours of the morning in the United States, when a 0-0 tie gave way to a disastrous penalty kick shootout. Megan Rapinoe and Kelley O’Hara—two of the OGs, two of the faces of the national team, two of the people you’d expect to remain cool under pressure—flubbed their penalty kicks. So too did Sophia Smith, the 22-year-old who was expected to help bridge the gap between Rapinoe and O’Hara’s generation into the next run of brilliance.
When a team as inevitable as the USWNT had been for the last eight years loses, it’s not just the story, it’s the only story. It’s also impossible to avoid the fact that this is a true end of an era. Rapinoe is retiring, meaning her final moment in the USA jersey is a cruel mishap from the penalty spot. When asked about her reaction to her blunder—which caused her to laugh in disbelief—Rapinoe put it as only she could.
“A sick joke,” the 38-year-old said, eulogizing what may forever be remembered stateside as the sick joke World Cup. “That’s why I had that smile on my face. Like, ‘You got to be fucking kidding me. I’m going to miss the penalty?’ I honestly can’t remember the last time I missed a penalty. Not in a game for a very long time. But that’s the way it goes. I’ve definitely thought about that before. It’s always a possibility when you step up there. But I thought I was going to make it. I thought everyone was going to make it.”
The worst part for Rapinoe is that she’ll never get another chance to make it. The same is true for Julie Ertz, one of the linchpins of the 2015 and 2019 world champion squads who announced her retirement after the Sweden loss. Alex Morgan stated that she has no immediate plans to retire, but she will be 38 by the time the 2027 World Cup is here. It’s hard to envision a world where she’s a major piece of that team, especially after going scoreless this summer. The same is likely true of O’Hara and goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher, who both turn 39 in 2027. Becky Sauerbrunn, the captain of the team, who missed this World Cup with a foot injury, will be 42. The team is going to look very different four years from now—both in their personnel and, hopefully, in their playing style.
The deflating defeat against Sweden is a bummer for the huge portion of the roster that knew it was their last chance. Their postgame tears tell that story better than any words ever could. It’s also an unbelievable letdown for manager Vlatko Andonovski, who blew what will surely be his only chance of winning a World Cup with the USWNT. While no announcement has been made, it would be unthinkable for him to keep his job.
Circumstances outside their control also made this World Cup feel a bit off in the US. The 14-hour time difference between Melbourne, Australia (where the dream died on Sunday) and New York meant that this go-round had a miniscule footprint in the states compared to the previous editions in Germany, France, and Canada, which were much easier to watch on television. The USWNT’s group stage games in Auckland and Wellington, New Zealand were 16 hours ahead of NYC and 19 ahead of Los Angeles. It’s a bit tragic, and perhaps fitting, that this complete debacle happened under the cover of darkness in the US. There are, of course, swaths of soccer obsessives who stayed up for each and every kickoff. But most people woke up on Sunday—just like they woke up on Tuesday—to see the disappointing result posted by an empire in decline. Rather than seeing it agonizingly unfold in real time, they learned about it hours later, sparing the misfortune of watching what is objectively the worst team the United States has ever sent to a Women’s World Cup.
There’s still two more weeks of the tournament, and there’s no shortage of fun teams—dejected Americans who still need their World Cup fix should consider shifting their attention to Australia, a gleaming team that has a real chance to win the whole thing on their home soil. But the pall hanging over US Soccer isn’t going away for quite a while. For a team—and country at-large—that went in with expectations the size of the American frontier, this whole thing will go down as a star-spangled bummer.