KASHIMA, Japan — In three games at the Tokyo Olympic soccer tournament, the United States scored pretty goals and poacher’s goals and, somehow, five offside goals.
On Tuesday the Americans scored no goals, and that, it turned out, was exactly what they needed. A workmanlike 0-0 tie with Australia on a humid, misty night delivered the United States — a medal favorite whose generational dominance was called into question last week — to the tournament’s knockout round, and to a quarterfinal against the Netherlands on Friday in Yokohama.
The Americans’ date against the Netherlands was confirmed around the time the team was set to arrive back at its hotel in Tokyo after grinding out a methodical, professional draw with Australia. The Netherlands has been the highest-scoring team in the tournament: The Dutch beat China, 8-2, on Tuesday to run its three-game goal total to 21.
Tuesday’s result was not a vintage United States performance, or perhaps even a popular one inside the locker room. Three days after his team broke out offensively in a 6-1 victory against New Zealand, United States Coach Vlatko Andonovski yanked back on the reins against Australia.
The United States rolled out a defensive tactical plan from the opening minute and never wavered, arranging what was effectively a fortified wall of defenders and midfielders and daring Australia to try to play balls over the top to its star striker, Sam Kerr. When Australia did, the United States had little trouble collecting the ball, neutralizing the danger and controlling the flow of the game.
While effective as a plan — Kerr, Australia’s most dangerous player, did not have a shot on goal — it was a strategy designed to invite attacks and then repel them, not to mount them at the other end: a plan for a draw, which Andonovski knew would clinch second place in the group, but not necessarily a plan for a victory.
The United States players — savvy and experienced pros from front to back — simply went out and executed it.
“It was a tactical decision by Vlatko for us to shift defensively a little more conservatively, and really allow them to get impatient, play long and give it back to us,” said forward Alex Morgan, who acknowledged the wisdom of the strategy even as she appeared to smirk when Andonovski was asked about it in his postgame news conference.
“Disciplined, professional — what we needed to do,” defender Becky Sauerbrunn called the tactics.
And if frustrating Australia, or at the very least stiff-arming it, was the goal, it worked.
“We didn’t want to get scored on,” Andonovski said matter of factly. “That was one of the plans.”
There were chances: Morgan failed to convert an end-to-end breakaway in the eighth minute, and Australia’s Mary Fowler — a kickoff time substitute for an injured Caitlin Foord — hit the crossbar with a header 10 minutes later.
Morgan even put the ball in the net with a header in the 31st minute, but it was ruled offside — the fifth American goal ruled out for offside in two games — after a lengthy video review.
As the chances dried up in the second half, a sense of resignation replaced any flicker of drama.
“Eventually, I felt like both teams kind of sat in,” Morgan said, “and it became playing a professional game and moving on.”
For a United States team that was humbled in an opening loss to Sweden and then gathered itself and a bit of confidence with six goals (and four offside ones that didn’t count) in a victory against New Zealand on Saturday, a tie — even a frustrating one — against a physical and potentially dangerous Australia team felt like a job well done.
When it ended, Andonovski turned and high-fived his assistants as if he had won. The players did not celebrate. There will be, they hope, other nights for that. For their coach, that would be great. Tuesday was simply about getting a result and moving on.
“Coming into this game we came with a mind-set that the first goal was to win the game, and the second goal was to put in a good professional performance,” Andonovski said. “Obviously we didn’t accomplish the first one but we did accomplish the second, which was very important, because ultimately it put us in the same place.”
The Matildas, as Australia’s team is known, were left to do the waiting: They finished third in the group, and had to wait until three hours later to learn their quarterfinal opponent: Britain’s Team GB.
Team GB won its first-round group with a 1-1 tie against Canada on Tuesday, a result delivered by an 85th-minute goal from a Scot, Caroline Weir.
United States 0, Australia 0
87′ With Australia’s Kerr down in the center circle and being attended to by trainers, Andonovski sends on his last sub: Kristie Mewis for Rose Lavelle. Just counting down the minutes now ….
85′ Now it’s not just the U.S. that looks happy with a draw: Australia just spent a minute calmly passing the ball around its back line.
The watchword of the moment is “careful.”
Careful that you don’t commit too much forward and get caught. Careful that you don’t let anyone behind you. Careful that you don’t take any risks that might lead to a mistake that costs you everything here.
Oh, either team will gladly take an opportunity if a true one presents itself. But no one is gambling at this point, and it really feels as if a goal is going to come, it will come on a set piece like a corner.
74′ Two more subs for the U.S.: Carli Lloyd, unlucky not to score against New Zealand, replaces Morgan. And Lynn Williams, an alternate but now and forever a United States Olympian, comes on for press.
Maybe there will be one last bit of drama: Lloyd sits back for no one, and has a nose for goal at 39 that younger players would envy. And Williams has shown herself to be fast and dangerous; attacking fresh legs might — might — offer a chance. But it better be a golden one.
69′ That’s a yellow for Cooney-Cross, who was about to get left behind by Lavelle in midfield and allow a dangerous breakout. So she did the only thing she could do: hauled her down.
65′ Here come the U.S reinforcements: Lindsey Horan for Sam Mewis, and Tobin Heath for Megan Rapinoe. Horan looks like she’s going to settle in right next to Ertz deep in midfield and help see this one out.
62′ Kyra Cooney-Cross of Australia is our first sub, replacing Chloe Logarzo. She takes her spot in midfield. Horan and Heath are about to follow her on.
55′ The U.S. allowed Simon waaay too much space in the middle there, and she ran into the gap and nearly burned them for the lapse. A late-arriving defender blocks her shot out for a corner, but that was real danger.
47′ Rapinoe’s cross was not nearly as bad as Kyah Simon’s right there: a moon shot over everyone. There was a bit of malice lurking, in the form of Kerr, if it had been better, though.
46′ Back underway and the first push is Ertz-to-Mewis-to-Rapinoe up the left. Rapinoe’s first-time cross is too long, however, and Morgan was offside anyway.
The teams trot off in Kashima after producing only a couple of really dangerous chances in the first half: Morgan’s breakaway, where she appeared to run out of steam well before it was time to shoot, and Fowler’s header, which came on the kind of look that — in Vlatko Andonovski’s eyes — Australia had far too often in the first 45 minutes.
Still, this is 45 minutes closer to the next round for both teams. For the Americans, who can claim second place in the group even with a draw, that counts as a win. They even scored their fifth offside goal in two games — against six actual goals — when Morgan’s header was ruled out. That feels like a Bob Beamon-esque Olympic record that will stand for a while.
Winning the group? That’s not going to happen. Sweden put two past New Zealand in the first half of their simultaneous game in Miyagi, putting it on track for three wins from three games.
United States 0, Australia 0
45′ One minute of injury time coming. Or, rather, VAR time.
38′ Rapinoe barrels into Micah and is whistled for a foul. Frustrated, she rockets the ball into the crowd of schoolchildren behind the goal and gets the game’s first yellow card for her efforts.
33′ They know how close that was.
32′ The call is confirmed after a VAR check but man, that was paper thin. Emily van Egmond, at the back post, realllllllllly looked even with Morgan there.
32′ Waiting, waiting, waiting ….
31′ GOAL?! Morgan?! Nope. Whomp whomp whomp. She is whistled for offside and the goal is erased, the fifth time that has happened to an American in two games. But wait: The replay sure looked like she was on, and we have VAR at the Games ….
30′ As the United States breaks out again, they definitely have one thing to talk about at halftime: They are allowing Australia too many 50-50 headers in the area in front of Naeher, and too much space to loft them in repeatedly. Sweden scored three goals that way, and Fowler has already hit the crossbar with one such chance.
Australia had the best chance of the first 25 minutes, Fowler’s header off the crossbar, and Morgan’s slow-motion breakaway produced a shot for the United States. But as we approach the half-hour mark the game is still scoreless in Kashima.
That is, to be clear, absolutely fine for the Americans: They know a win or a draw today gets them second place in the group, and a defined path to at least their next game. After the way this tournament began for them, that’s not a terrible thing to lock down.
18′ Australia hits the crossbar with a header! A dangerous string of looping headers finds a green-shirted body at the end, and Alyssa Naeher — thankfully — watches the ball hit the bar and come back out. The U.S. clears and exhales.
That was Mary Fowler with the header. She was a last-minute change to Australia’s announced lineup for Caitlin Foord.
14′ Sweden’s coach, the former U.S. assistant Tony Gustavsson, is up in front of his bench screaming at his forwards to get away from one another. Sweden stretched the field well that way in the opener, drawing defenders like Crystal Dunn out wide, and then carved up the United States defense in the spaces that were created.
8′ There’s our first chance, out of nothing. The U.S. wins a header, bops it out to Lavelle, who springs Morgan up the center. She looked like she ran out of steam a bit by the time she got to the penalty area, and her shot — falling down — hits goalie Teagan Micah right in the gloves.
7′ Emily van Egmond drops Ertz like a bag of rocks setting a pick on an Australian set piece. The referee saw it all, though, and had blown the whistle before the cross had even begun its descent.
5′ The U.S. back four is playing a little bit of a high line early, maybe to drag Kerr up the field a bit. But Australia just tried to spring her through the trap (Sauerbrunn cut off the pass), and that only needs to work once or twice with a player as deadly as Kerr.
The United States takes a knee before kickoff. Australia, as it has done previously, stands arms over shoulders around the center circle. Here we go.
Australia Coach Tony Gustavsson might know the United States women’s team as well as any coach in the world.
He helped the United States win an Olympic gold medal in 2012 in London as a member of the staff of the former coach Pia Sundhage. And when one of his fellow assistants from that team, Jill Ellis, took over the head job, she brought him back and together they added two World Cup titles to the Americans’ bulging trophy case.
But when Ellis left the post in 2019, Gustavsson followed her out the door. After a brief stint coaching in his native Sweden, he was hired by Australia last September. And now he is in position to use all those years of inside knowledge to work.
Gustavsson was viewed, fairly or not, as the tactical mind behind Ellis’s winning teams, and they did quite a bit of winning together. So he will know not only how the American stars like to play, but also how they don’t. He’ll know how they react to short turnarounds and how they react to bad fields (Kashima’s looks a little splotchy today, and the tropical storm that swept through here on Monday night surely didn’t help matters). He’ll be aware of their collective and individual strengths, and — perhaps more important — their weaknesses.
All of that could all be valuable information with so much on the line today.
The teams are coming out of the tunnel. Sauerbrunn leads the U.S. out first. Kerr is at the head of the Australia line. The United States is in all white today; the Matildas are green with yellow accents.
Ibaraki Kashima Stadium is another of these lovely Japanese stadiums that deserved a better fate than an empty-seat Games. The stadium’s rising and falling swirl of a roof — think of a bigger Red Bull Arena — holds about 41,000 on a good day. Today? A few hundred schoolchildren have been invited to watch.
Rotating players is always part and parcel of an Olympic tournament, where games come fast and off days are rare. So the United States knew even before the tournament whom it planned to start, and when those players might sit, in its group games.
The changes continue against Australia. Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan return to the starting lineup, joining Christen Press in a redrawn forward line. Sam Mewis returns in midfield, replacing Lindsey Horan, and will team with Julie Ertz and Rose Lavelle. (Watch how Mewis and Ertz line up early, since both can play defensive roles but don’t have to do so.)
On the back line, Crystal Dunn becomes the only defender to keep her place for all three games. Becky Sauerbrunn and Kelley O’Hara are back, and Tierna Davidson takes over for Abby Dahlkemper as Sauerbrunn’s partner.
Australia, meanwhile, has made only two changes from its loss against Sweden on Saturday.
Sam Kerr remains the player to watch for Australia, always, and that’s not just true for Davidson and Sauerbrunn. It takes a village to stop Sam Kerr from getting a couple goals.
The United States starting lineup is out. Among the changes: Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan are restored to the front line, Sam Mewis returns in midfield (Lindsey Horan sits) and Tierna Davidson, who played well against New Zealand, will partner with Becky Sauerbrunn in central defense.
Small rosters are traditionally one of the quirks of the Olympic tournament. Teams that are used to carrying 23 players for a big tournament are limited to 18 at the Games, and then must rotate those to their best efficiency in the compressed schedule of a fast-moving tournament.
This year, those roster rules have been modified. In addition to their full 18-player rosters, teams were allowed to bring four alternates, who could be named to a game day roster at any time.
The change — in place only for the pandemic-era Tokyo Games — has given the teams and their coaches quite a bit of flexibility. The United States, for example, listed Jane Campbell, Casey Krueger and Catarina Macario on its 18-player match day roster against New Zealand on Saturday. (Macario and Krueger even came on as late substitutes.)
It was not a meaningless gesture, either. According to the International Olympic Committee’s rules for the tournament, a player must be listed on a match day roster to be considered an Olympian and receive a medal if her team wins one. Macario, Krueger and Campbell now meet that criteria.
So if you see Lynn Williams on the bench against Australia, know it could be for the same reason.
The United States women’s soccer team would prefer not to ponder any possibility except a victory when it faces Australia in its third game of the Olympics at Ibaraki Kashima Stadium, but nonetheless there are a few.
The good news for the United States is that it is extremely hard to get eliminated from the Olympic tournament in the group stage. Eight of the 12 teams entered will move on — the top two teams in three groups and the best two third-place finishers — and only a catastrophic set of results would see the Americans go out today.
(Fair warning: I have seen just such a thing happen in real time before, a fact not lost on any U.S. soccer fan, so never say never. But set that aside for now.)
Here are the current group standings:
Team, W-L-T, Points, Goal Difference
Sweden, 2-0-0, 6 points, +5
United States, 1-1-0, 3 points, +2
Australia, 1-1-0, 3 points, +1
New Zealand, 0-2-0, 0 points, -6
Sweden will win the group barring a stunning, lopsided defeat against New Zealand. It can expect to play a third-place finisher in the quarterfinals.
The United States will finish second with a win or a tie. The second-place finisher in this group, though, could have a tough road: a likely matchup against the Netherlands, a 2019 World Cup finalist and the top-scoring team in the Olympic tournament, or Brazil, a tough opponent on any day.
A loss is where it gets nervy for the United States. An Australia victory would leave the United States in third place and sweating out its next opponent for a few hours. A second loss in three games would also leave the players and Coach Vlatko Andonovski stewing over some uncomfortable questions.
The United States has played Australia 30 times, and has a record of 26 wins, three ties and a single defeat in those matches. Pretty good, right?
Recent results tell a different story. Australia is 1-1-1 in its last three matches against the United States, it is the last team to beat the United States on home soil, and it boasts one of the best strikers in the world in Sam Kerr.
Kerr has three goals already at the Tokyo Games, and she missed a penalty against Sweden — with a chance to tie the match — that might have had the Matildas in a different position entering today.
Australia is a talented, experienced team, and also a younger one than the United States on balance, and it doesn’t shy away from a fight. Do not expect a walkover, especially with Kerr out there hunting goals.