Top-Ranked U.S. Women's Soccer Team Falls To Sweden In Olympic Stadium With No Fans

Jul 21, 2021
Originally published on July 27, 2021 9:57 am

Updated July 21, 2021 at 8:21 AM ET

TOKYO — It was a devastating start to the Tokyo Olympics for the U.S. women's soccer team. The U.S., ranked No. 1 and the reigning World Cup champions, played a familiar foe: Sweden. And unfortunately for the U.S., it was a familiar result. Sweden beat them 3-0.

"We got our a**** kicked, didn't we. Just a little tight, just a little nervous," U.S. star Megan Rapinoe told NPR after the game. "We had a few chances that we could have taken better that would have shifted the game quite a bit."

In the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, Sweden won against the U.S. in the quarterfinals, denying the squad a medal. The U.S. came into these Games seeking to become the first women's team to ever take Olympic gold after winning the World Cup.

Wednesday's loss to fifth-ranked Sweden will make that feat more difficult, but does not rule it out.

The vast majority of the starting lineup in this game – seven out of 11 – were players who played in that 2016 match against Sweden. Those include big names like Alex Morgan and Kelley O'Hara.

The U.S. came into these Games seeking to become the first women's team to ever take Olympic gold after winning the World Cup. That will be more of an uphill climb now.
Dan Mullan / Getty Images

The action took place in a nearly empty stadium. Olympic events in Tokyo are happening without fans because of a coronavirus-related state of emergency. As the players warmed up, an announcer called out each of their names – and no cheers followed for superstars such as Rapinoe and Rose Lavelle.

The stadium was so quiet that press in the stands could actually hear snippets of what the players were yelling to one another. The gates where crowds usually enter were sealed closed, and the only food that appeared to be available was sold in the media center.

"I'm not going to lie, that part sucked," Rapinoe said when asked about the empty stands. "Obviously you go to a major tournament, one of the best parts is just the buzz that you get. I'm not saying that we should have fans — I don't think we should, actually — so it is what it is. I think just being thankful that we even have a tournament. But definitely, it changes the dynamic a lot."

In a normal Olympics, the first U.S. women's soccer game would be played in front of a packed stadium with throngs of fans who traveled from all over the world.

It was a most unusual game for the U.S., which played without its usual attacking zeal. Sweden dominated the first half with strong attacking runs and several defensive stops. Sweden got on the board in the 25th minute when Stina Blackstenius headed the ball into the goal. "Song 2" by Blur was startling as it blasted through the stadium.

The U.S. almost equalized just before halftime when midfielder Lavelle narrowly missed a goal off the post.

During halftime, a video of a small group of cheering fans came onto the stadium jumbotron — almost emphasizing their absence.

The U.S. mixed up its lineup with two substitutions at the half, including defensive star Julie Ertz and veteran Carli Lloyd. Rapinoe subbed in about 10 minutes later. Still, Sweden scored two more times — with another goal from Blackstenius and one from Lina Hurtig.

In the group stage, the U.S. women will have two more games – against Australia and New Zealand. The top two teams in their group of four will then move on to the knockout round.

U.S. player Christen Press said the team is already looking ahead. "The rhetoric's already 'Heads up, put it behind us and on to the next game,' " she said. "There's no time in a tournament like this to dwell."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Now to a Tokyo Olympics shocker - the top-ranked U.S. women's soccer team got routed by Sweden in its opening game today, 3-nothing. NPR's Mandalit del Barco was one of the very few people watching in the stadium. Here's her report.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: The match was summed up very simply by U.S. star forward Megan Rapinoe. After the game, she was characteristically frank.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MEGAN RAPINOE: Well, we got our [expletive] kicked, didn't we?

DEL BARCO: Sweden controlled the game from the beginning to the end - crisper passes, better defense and a stinging attack that led to three goals against the U.S., the reigning World Cup champions. Afterwards, Rapinoe told reporters she and her teammates had felt a little too tight and nervous throughout, just not themselves.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RAPINOE: And obviously, they're just a very good team that we face all the time. They're one of the best teams in Europe ever, so it's always going to be tough. You know, I think they found the spaces in our offensive shape, and, you know, they obviously are a team that knows exactly who they are. I think, you know, not every team plays like that with that kind of conviction.

DEL BARCO: The U.S. came to Tokyo hoping to be the first women's team to win Olympic gold as the reigning World Cup champion, but it was again their longtime rival, Sweden, which knocked the U.S. out of the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Here's U.S. defender Becky Sauerbrunn.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BECKY SAUERBRUNN: We weren't quite finding enough passes. We were losing the ball in bad areas. They were committing numbers fast, and so it's really hard to defend that because we like to play an expansive shape. And so they capitalized on that. They knew the spaces to capitalize on.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Welcome to Tokyo stadium for the Tokyo 2020 women's Olympic football competition.

DEL BARCO: The match was played two days before the Olympic opening ceremony in the nearly empty Tokyo Stadium. Japan is still in a state of emergency over the coronavirus pandemic. The game was played without fans.

(APPLAUSE)

DEL BARCO: There were no raucous, roaring cheers - just a smattering of applause from the small press zone whenever the Swedes made a goal. From the stands, you could hear what the players were yelling to each other. You could hear the soccer ball being kicked, even birds chirping nearby. The quiet game was occasionally interrupted by loud music...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEL BARCO: ...And announcements that echoed through the rafters. Even sounds of past soccer games were pumped in. U.S. player Christen Press told reporters she and her teammates have gotten used to playing in empty arenas this past pandemic year.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHRISTEN PRESS: We could hear each other. We could hear our own breath a little bit, but we do feel the support from everyone, from our family and fans back home. And, honestly, the support powers us through.

DEL BARCO: Press said they see this loss to Sweden as a learning opportunity.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESS: And the rhetoric's already heads up. Put it behind us - next game. There's no time in a tournament like this to dwell.

DEL BARCO: The U.S. has two more games in group play against Australia and New Zealand. They hope to do well enough to advance to the knockout round and still go for the gold at these most unusual, rather surreal Olympics.

Mandalit del Barco, NPR News, Tokyo.

(SOUNDBITE OF LITTLE PEOPLE'S "START SHOOTIN'") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.