Under an ink black Australian sky above Melbourne Rectangular Stadium, the Women’s World Cup game between the United States and Sweden on Sunday went on and on and on. For 120 minutes, it went on as the teams tried unsuccessfully to score, with nearly 28,000 fans so nervous that they could only muster a simmer of cheers. Until penalty kicks turned up the volume and decided it all.
That’s when the United States’ recent dominance in the World Cup fully ended, and the Americans were left stunned and devastated by their worst showing at the quadrennial tournament. They had arrived as the favorites after winning two consecutive championships, in 2015 and 2019. But on Sunday, in the round of 16, three missed penalty kicks and a razor-thin goal by Sweden changed their fate.
Sophia Smith, who missed an opportunity to win for the United States, had to be consoled by her teammates as she sat on the field in tears. Kelley O’Hara, in her fourth World Cup, stormed by reporters and stared straight ahead in silence after the game, moments after her penalty shot hit the right post and bounced away.
And Megan Rapinoe, the outspoken and accomplished U.S. forward who had been relegated to a reserve at this World Cup, grew teary when discussing that her international career would end with her missing a penalty kick, calling it “a sick joke.” Just a week ago, Rapinoe was asked what the team’s legacy would be if it failed to win the world title yet again. She answered, “I haven’t thought about that.”
Now she won’t forget it. Sweden won the shootout, 5-4, to eliminate the United States.
Alex Morgan, the star U.S. forward, called it “a bad dream.”
“I’m really disappointed with myself, and I wish I could have provided more with this team,” said Morgan, who was on the bench for the shootouts because she had been replaced by Rapinoe earlier. She didn’t score during the entire tournament.
Julie Ertz, who rushed back to the team after having a baby a year ago, said it was sweet to see her son in the stands after the match. “But it still hurts to lose a game like that,” she said. She walked off, wiping the wet, smeared mascara from under her eyes.
It all came apart for the United States in a flurry of 14 kicks. Here’s how they unfolded, emotions included:
Andi Sullivan, the midfielder, is up first to face Sweden’s goalkeeper, Zecira Musovic, with her teammates lined up behind her, many arm in arm. She walks over to the spot with the death stare of a gunslinger, then nails the shot into the lower left of the goal. Sullivan spins back toward her teammates and pumps a fist. The crowd finally comes alive and chants: “U-S-A! U-S-A!” U.S. 1, Sweden 0.
Fridolina Rolfo, a 5-foot-10 forward who has been on the national team for 10 years, is up first for Sweden against goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher about a month after winning the Champions League with Barcelona. She sends the ball into the right side of the net, her blond ponytail swinging behind her. She flexes her arms and opens her mouth wide to shout in celebration, and the Swedish fans, many clad in bright yellow and sitting right behind the goal, explode into cheers. U.S. 1, Sweden 1.
One of the U.S. co-captains, Lindsey Horan, has a familiar, ferocious “don’t mess with me” look on her face. It’s the look she had just before she scored the equalizer in the 1-1 tie versus the Netherlands in the group stage. It’s much tougher than the softer approach she took for much of last week with her teammates, as she encouraged the 14 World Cup rookies, one by one, to play with more confidence. The Swedish fans are booing her, competing with the U.S. cheers. But Horan is steely and delivers the ball precisely to the left side, rocketing it into the net. U.S. 2, Sweden 1.
Elin Rubensson, a midfielder who returned to soccer just two months after having a baby in 2020, evidently decides that Horan picked a wonderful place to put the ball into the net. So she sends the ball there, too — and Naeher can’t get to it. U.S. 2, Sweden 2.
Up next is Kristie Mewis, whose little sister, Sam, won the World Cup title with the United States in 2019. The elder Mewis exhales hard before she shoots with her left foot and sends the ball into the right side of the goal. The stadium starts to rumble. U.S. 3, Sweden 2.
The fans are starting to think this might never end. Nathalie Bjorn, the right back for Sweden, tries to shoot into the left corner, but the ball has other ideas. It goes flying over the goal and the Sweden fans sigh in unison. She buries her face in her hands. The momentum has changed. Peter Gerhardsson, Sweden’s coach, says after the game: “You’re just waiting. You want it to be over, and you want it to go your way.” U.S. 3, Sweden 2.
The U.S. fans go wild when Megan Rapinoe walks up. She had come in for Morgan as a substitute and was sure the ball would go straight into the back of the net, just as it had so many times before, including in the final of the 2019 World Cup. This is her final World Cup, her fourth one, after she announced in July that she would retire this year. But now, her shot isn’t even close.
She sends the ball flying over the goal. On the way back to her team, she smiles because she just can’t believe it. This is how an international career ends? She thinks she last missed a penalty shot maybe in 2018.
“That’s some dark humor, me missing,” she says after the game. “I feel like I joke too often, always in the wrong places and inappropriately, so maybe this is ha-ha at the end.” U.S. 3, Sweden 2.
Sweden’s Rebecka Blomqvist shoots and Naeher makes a superhero-like dive to knock the shot down. U.S. 3, Sweden 2.
The United States scored only four goals at this World Cup, and forward Sophia Smith scored half of them. She can win it for the U.S. team, and takes her time setting up. When she connects with the ball, it soars over the right side of the post. The win was there for the taking, and she couldn’t grab it. She buries her face in her black-gloved hands. She will not be the star today. Horan tells her later: “The best players in the world miss.” Smith explains to reporters later: “But you’ve got to remember, this is part of football. You get back up and it’s going to hurt. It’s going to hurt for forever.” U.S. 3, Sweden 2.
Hanna Bennison, a substitute for Sweden, has a chance to save her team from what had looked like disaster. She scores, sending her team into a frenzy. Gerhardsson says later: “Accept that you are nervous, so that being nervous doesn’t make you more nervous.” U.S. 3, Sweden 3.
There’s a rumble among U.S. fans when they see who is taking the next shot: It’s Alyssa Naeher, the goalkeeper. She has flipped the switch in her head and is now taking on Musovic, her counterpart. Her shot goes smack into the middle of the goal after Musovic guesses wrong. U.S. 4, Sweden 3.
Magdalena Eriksson, a seasoned center back, needs to score to keep Sweden alive. And she delivers to the upper right corner. Sweden 4, U.S. 4.
It’s up to Kelley O’Hara, in her fourth World Cup. She sprints to the spot. She wants to win this game and this tournament and has rallied her team to have confidence that it will do both. But her shot bounces off the right post and away along the baseline.
Sweden’s fans start to party, waving their blue-and-yellow flags and dancing. Naeher says she feels terrible for her teammates who missed: “They’ve trained for it. They’ve prepared for it. And, you know, unfortunately, those things happen. My heart hurts for them.” Sweden 4, U.S. 4.
Lina Hurtig, the forward who scored when Sweden humbled the United States at the Tokyo Olympics, can win it. She shoots toward the left side of the goal. Naeher leaps for it, hitting it once with both hands to make it fly upward. The ball goes up, and Naeher hits it again with her right arm while on the ground, stretched backward, to keep it out of the goal.
Did it go in, after all? Naeher insists she saved it. Hurtig raises her arms, and shadows the referee, Stéphanie Frappart, to make her case for a goal. The play is reviewed with cameras and tracking technology.
Then Frappart waves her arms: The game is over; it is ruled a goal. Hurtig takes off toward her teammates and the Swedish players run onto the field to celebrate.
The ball, indeed, had crossed entirely into the goal, according to the replay system. By the looks of it, the margin may be a millimeter. “I thought I had it. Unfortunately it must have just slipped in. But that’s tough. Ugh, we just lost the World Cup. It’s heartbreak,” Naeher says. Sweden 5, U.S. 4.