This article is part of a series on the 2023 World Cup. Read coverage of previous games here.
After a scoreless extra time period versus Sweden, it all came down to a penalty shootout.
Three Cardinal stepped up for the U.S. but only one found the back of the net. That proved to be the difference between victory and the worst ever Women’s World Cup (WWC) finish for the back-to-back champions.
Midfielder Andi Sullivan ’18 was the first to the spot, decisively placing the ball in the net beyond the reach of Swedish goalkeeper Zećira Mušović — who had already made an impressive 11 saves.
But Stanford’s luck stopped there, and it proved costly for the United States.
By the time Sophia Smith ’22 took the fifth penalty, Sweden had missed back-to-back shots and the USWNT was up in the penalty count. A well-placed strike would win the game and extend the U.S.’ tournament run.
But Smith sent her shot flying.
Tossed a lifeline, the Swedes took full advantage, putting their next two shots in the back of the net. So it all came down to Kelley O’Hara ’10 with successful penalties tied 4-4. The defender was subbed in mere minutes prior as extra time came to a close, likely with this very moment in mind, but O’Hara sent her ball ricocheting off the post. With the shot advantage, a successful Swedish penalty would eliminate the United States.
Although USWNT goalie Alyssa Naeher initially blocked Lina Hurtig’s shot, the rebound bounced upward.
FIFA went to VAR review and the world sat in suspense waiting for the call.
It came: goal.
The ball had crossed the goal line by millimeters.
The Swedes were in and the United States was sent packing.
The loss marks the first time in federation history that the U.S. finished lower than third in a Women’s World Cup.
Sweden’s Mušović was brilliant for 120 minutes in goal but she did not even need to make a save in the shootout.
The United States eliminated themselves.
The outcome was especially tragic in a game that was arguably the USWNT’s best performance of the tournament. The U.S. took 22 shots and dominated possession. Their switch to a five-player midfield was a much needed improvement and the United States held the No. 3 ranked Swedes to only one shot on target.
Sullivan, who plays for the Washington Spirit in the NWSL, led the UWSNT in tackles (15) and led the both her team and the WWC in interceptions (12).
“I am gutted for this group,” tweeted Julie Foudy ’93 post game. “Just never could get the USA mojo going. Had a much better performance today but just not nearly good enough on so many levels at this World Cup.”
Although Naomi Girma ’22 did not take a penalty, she was a bright spot of the tournament for the United States. The USWNT only allowed a single goal across four games (from the Netherlands) and the former Cardinal defender played all 390 minutes of regulation. With the announcement of defender/midfielder Julie Ertz’s retirement from international soccer following Sunday’s loss, the U.S. will lean on the 23-year-old Girma more and more in the coming years to hold down the United States’ backline.
“Kelley [O’Hara] always says that we just rent these jerseys and it’s the job to pass it down to the younger ones to continue that in their DNA,” Ertz said. “It’s been an absolute ride. I’ve learned so much about myself as a player, but even just as a person. This team obviously competes and plays soccer, but it does so much more, and I’m just very grateful.”
Fellow Cardinal defender Alana Cook ’19 did not see the field this tournament.
Other notable Stanford absences from Australia and New Zealand were midfielder Catarina Macario ’21, who missed the WWC due to injury, and defender Tierna Davidson ‘20, who was left off of the roster (perhaps due to a recent injury) despite being a part of the 2019 title-winning team. Forward Christen Press ’10 also missed the 2023 tournament due to injury, and the 34-year-old will likely retire in the near future.
I would be surprised if Head Coach Vlatko Andonovski is retained after this unprecedented elimination. Andonovski led the USWNT in two major tournaments, the 2020 Olympics and 2023 WWC, and only won four of 10 games across those two competitions. His tactics are simply not good enough to win major titles.
With the U.S. out, Germany eliminated in the group stage and Norway defeated on Saturday, Japan is the only team remaining in title contention that has previously won a Women’s World Cup. The Japanese claimed the title in 2011 after outlasting the United States in a penalty shootout. In the 2023 tournament, Japan has seemed like the team to beat — winning all four games so far, including shutouts versus Spain and Norway.
Sweden will play Japan in the quarterfinals on Friday.