What’s next for Team USA after disappointing World Cup?

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By Susan Comstock

A departure in the knockout round was considered something to build upon for the youthful U.S. Men’s National Team last fall at the World Cup in Qatar.

For many reasons, such encouragement is not the case on the women’s side. An exit in the same stage Sunday in Australia is being construed as a colossal failure for the two-time defending champions.

Of course, a portion of Americans are elated — for political or personal reasons — that the women were eliminated prematurely. A few massive soccer fans that I know, in fact, openly were rooting for the U.S. side to get bounced.

The hullabaloo about several starting players not singing the national anthem before games was a contrived and selective criticism. You rarely see politicians or athletes in other sports getting ripped for not singing along, even while representing the country in international competition.

Where was the uproar, for instance, over similarly silent U.S. players during the World Baseball Classic earlier this year?

Julie Ertz (R) of USA talks with her teammates Naomi Girma (L) and Andi Sullivan (C) after fouled during the FIFA Women's World Cup Australia & New Zealand 2023 Round of 16 match between Sweden and USA at Melbourne Rectangular Stadium on August 06, 2023 in Melbourne / Naarm, Australia.
The U.S. team tried to blend its championship core with a new generation of rising talents and ended up with its earliest World Cup exit ever.
FIFA via Getty Images

From purely a soccer perspective, there is plenty to dissect as U.S. Soccer contemplates necessary changes for 2027 and beyond.

Sunday’s shootout loss to Sweden actually was the Americans’ most complete performance of the tournament, which included only one goal scored over its final three matches.

Swedish goalkeeper Zecira Musovic easily was the woman of the match with 11 saves Sunday in 120 minutes of game action, even if she didn’t technically add another in seven rounds of penalty kicks.

Retiring star Megan Rapinoe and World Cup first-timer Sophia Smith missed the frame entirely, while veteran Kelley O’Hara hit the post to set the stage for Lina Hurtig’s winner that technology confirmed barely crossed U.S. keeper Alyssa Naeher’s goal line.

Anyone who’s played or coached soccer at a high level understands the “cruel” nature of requiring PKs, and several players and coach Vlatko Andonovski invoked that word after the USWNT’s earliest exit in more than three decades of World Cup play.

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Zecira Musovic #1 of Sweden makes a save during extra time of the FIFA Women's World Cup Australia & New Zealand 2023 Round of 16 match between Sweden and the United States at Melbourne Rectangular Stadium on August 06, 2023 in Melbourne, Australia.
Zecira Musovic’s 11 saves stymied Team USA’s high-powered attack and set the stage for Sweden’s penalty-kick victory.
Getty Images for USSF

Of course, the Mia Hamm-led U.S. squad won the title in 1999 on Brandi Chastain’s sudden-death penalty kick against China.

It’s easy to forget now that the Americans didn’t get back to the podium again until 2015, with Germany copping back-to-back titles in 2003 and ’07 and Japan upending the U.S. in penalties in the 2011 finals.

The core of Rapinoe, Naeher, O’Hara, Alex Morgan and Julie Ertz were holdovers of the World Cup-winning teams in ’15 and ’19, and it’s certainly conceivable that all were making their final appearances at this stage.

Fourteen of the 23 rostered players were making their World Cup debuts, but Andonovski wasn’t able to thread the needle of fully transitioning the team, especially up front.

The 34-year-old Morgan — the fifth-leading goal-scorer in U.S. history with 121 — didn’t add to that total in a four-start personal shutout. And the 38-year-old Rapinoe played sparingly and mostly ineffectually in three appearances off the bench.

Alex Morgan #13 of the United States plays the ball under pressure from Nathalie Björn #14 of Sweden during extra time of the FIFA Women's World Cup Australia & New Zealand 2023 Round of 16 match between Sweden and the United States at Melbourne Rectangular Stadium on August 06, 2023 in Melbourne, Australia.
Alex Morgan came close but wasn’t able to get the ball past anyone in four World Cup Games this year.
Getty Images for USSF

The 22-year-old Smith scored twice in the opener against Vietnam, but was quiet for the remainder of the slate. Trinity Rodman, 21, had some nice moments, especially in Sunday’s first half, but ultimately did not find the back of the net in the four games.

These are players the U.S. will look to reload around in the coming seasons, along with 18-year-old Alyssa Thompson, impressive center back Naomi Girma and likely returning injured stars Mallory Swanson and Catarina Macario.

Another thing to consider moving forward is that the depth of the women’s game has improved around the world, as evidenced by the No. 1 (USA), No. 2 (Germany), No. 7 (Canada) and No. 8 (Brazil) teams in the FIFA World Rankings all eliminated before the quarterfinals in the first year the field was expanded to 32 teams.

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No. 3 Sweden is now the highest-ranked squad remaining, but Team USA’s scoreless draw in pool play last week against No. 21 Portugal showed their crisp play and air of invincibility are things they’ll need to rediscover before the Olympics next year and the next World Cup four years from now.

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Clear the benches

Jose Ramirez #11 of the Cleveland Guardians and Tim Anderson #7 of the Chicago White Sox start to fight as umpire Malachi Moore #44 gets between them during the sixth inning at Progressive Field on August 05, 2023 in Cleveland, Ohio.
The brawl between Jose Ramirez and Tim Anderson on Saturday night may have been the best fight in sports in weeks, with or without boxing gloves.
Getty Images

Baseball brawls used to be far more frequent and action-packed, Saturday’s one-punch knockout of Tim Anderson by Jose Ramirez notwithstanding.
I’ve definitely covered a few good ones in my decades as a New York baseball writer, with my most memorable still the one 25 years ago this past May, between the Yankees and the Orioles in 1998 at the Stadium.

After Bernie Williams homered, Tino Martinez was drilled between the 2 and the 4 on his jersey by an Armando Benitez fastball, and Darryl Strawberry ended up fighting people in the visiting dugout.

Another crazy brawl I covered, of course, was the Don Zimmer-Pedro Martinez melee in the 2003 ALCS at Fenway Park, with the 72-year-old bench coach ushered out of the ballpark on a stretcher.

Robin Ventura charging the mound and getting pounded by 46-year-old pitcher Nolan Ryan also made the rounds on social media last week for its 30th anniversary.

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Most of the benches-clearing incidents nowadays don’t involve many punches thrown, but Saturday’s fight between the White Sox and Guardians was more memorable than Jake Paul’s bout against Nate Diaz later that night. (At least, according to a friend who actually watched the latter.)

Biles is back

Simone Biles competes in the uneven bars during the Core Hydration Classic at Now Arena on August 05, 2023 in Hoffman Estates, Illinois.
After winning in the all-around, balance beam and floor excercises over the weekend, Simone Biles said her return to competition “went pretty well.”
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Simone Biles was back to being the gold standard in her first gymnastics competition since withdrawing from several events at the 2021 Olympics in Tokyo for mental-health reasons.

The four-time Olympic gold medalist won the all-around, the floor exercise and the balance beam competitions this weekend at the Core Hydration Classic outside Chicago.

“Everything has fallen into place,” the 26-year-old Biles told reporters after the meet. “I feel really good about where I am right now, mentally and physically. There are some things to work on in my routines, but for the first meet back, I would say it went pretty well. I’m very shocked and surprised.

“I always kind of knew [I’d return] as soon as everything that happened in Tokyo. So, this time I’m doing it for me, I worked a lot on myself, and I believe in myself a little bit more, just coming back out here and starting the first steps again.”

Biles now can turn her attention to the U.S. Championships in San Jose on Aug. 24-27, and the possibility of qualifying for the World Championships in Belgium in October.

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