Megan Rapinoe and the Team USA footballers head to Tokyo in 2021 with high hopes of claiming a fifth gold medal and becoming the first team to win back-to-back World Cup and Olympic titles ― the opportunity of revenge against Sweden for knocking them out in Rio would only be icing on the cake.
Team USA will arrive at the Tokyo Olympic Women’s Football Tournament as prohibitive favourites. But for reigning FIFA World Cup champions, like the States are now, the climb to the top of the Olympic podium has proven historically elusive.
It's never been done.
And to get up into that rarefied golden air for what would be an astonishing fifth time in seven competitions, Megan Rapinoe and Co will have to battle past a group stage full of pitfalls, snares and old familiar foes.
“Why’d you have to go and bring up all that sad stuff,” 2012 gold-medallist Rapinoe joked with reporters eager to rummage around in her most recent Olympic memory ― a decidedly sad one as the Americans went out in the quarterfinals of the Rio 2016 Games to Sweden.
USA out early in Brazil
That was the only time Team USA failed to reach an Olympic gold-medal match since the inaugural event in Atlanta in 1996. “It was terrible. We felt like total failures,” added Rapinoe, who is also a two-time World Cup winner (2015 and 2019) and once a runner-up (2011). “We didn't complete the task. We didn't play particularly well.”
Midfield schemer Lindsey Horan, who was playing in her first Olympics in Rio five years ago as a fresh-faced 21-year-old, remembers the sensations well. “That feeling never goes away,” she told Tokyo 2020 in an exclusive interview. “As a team we ride on winning and getting to the finals of tournaments. That’s not [meant] to sound arrogant, but that’s how it is and we’re a team of competitors – everyone still has that bitterness in their mouth.”
Read more: Horan: Rio revenge, Covid woes and Messi lessons.
The aftertaste is a little subtler for Rapinoe, an avid spokesperson for social justice issues as well as one of the team’s on-field leaders at the veteran age of 35. “I wouldn't say it left a bad taste in people's mouths, exactly,” said the Tacoma-based OL Reign midfielder with 175 USA caps to her name. “I think it left a fire under people to never let that happen again. So you take the things that you can from it. I think it gave a lot of us, all of us, a lot of motivation moving forward.”
Horan, back in the USA with club side Portland Thorns following four years in France with PSG, recalls the penalty shootout (she scored her spot kick on the day) that saw the Swedes – then led by former USA coach Pia Sundhage – move on to the semifinals and the Americans head, achingly, for home on an early flight.
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“We’re not used to going out in the quarterfinals of any tournament. Since then [Rio 2016], we really want revenge, but it’s a revenge for ourselves,” added Horan, whose vision and passing precision saw her dropped into a deeper role in the team under new coach Vlatko Andonovski. “No one has ever won back-to-back World Cups and Olympic golds and we’re hoping to get back to where we want to be at the Olympics.”
Swedes once again
Almost as if it preordained from up on some footballing Mount Olympus, the official draw from FIFA Headquarters in Zurich, Switzerland last month set up an Olympic group-stage rematch of that historic 2016 quarterfinal.
The opportunity for the Americans to set the record straight will come right up front against a Swedish team who held them to a 1-1 draw when they last met in an April 2021 friendly (breaking a 16-match winning streak for the Americans).
We hold a very high standard and have high goals for ourselves...
And going back-to-back [World Cup and Olympics] is one of those.
Team USA have met Sweden in six World Cups and twice in the Olympic Games. It’s a rivalry in tournament play that goes way back to the inaugural women’s World Cup in China in 1991 and it runs all the way up to that August night five years ago in Brasilia. It was a night to remember in many ways, not least of all for now-retired USA goalkeeper Hope Solo publicly calling the Swedes “cowards” after their overtly defensive display through 120 minutes of regular and extra time.
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“It would be an incredible achievement. A historic one,” said winger Crystal Dunn, 28 and teammate of Horan in Portland, when asked about the USA’s opportunity to be the first team to win back-to-back women’s World Cup and Olympic titles. “To be the first team to actually do it would be difficult but I think we’re more than capable. After 2016 I know that all of us are hungry to get back out there and really show what this team’s all about. Hopefully [we] bring home a gold medal.”
An eye on history
Captain Becky Sauerbrunn, the long-time beating heart at the centre of defence, is a calming influence in the USA locker-room and a tiger on the field. When asked about the lack of fans, high temperatures expected in Japan – or the long travel associated with the upcoming Games – she shrugged.
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“Everyone knows that it's going to be challenging. But that's what makes us elite, the ability to rise above those challenges and just lean on each other and get to work and get the job done. We just want to make history,” she said of a first round in Japan where, aside from the Swedes, the Americans will face former coach Tom Sermanni’s New Zealand and an Australian side led by outstanding striker Sam Kerr. “We hold a very high standard and have high goals for ourselves and going back-to-back is one of those.”
Aside from a large contingent of veterans in the team, there are those in the American selection orbit aiming for a first chance on the big Olympic stage. Abby Dahlkemper, a humble force in the rearguard always looking to improve, knows what it’s like to win a World Cup (as part of the victorious 2019 USA team in France) but has yet to dip her toe in Olympic waters.
“The group needs to, you know, ultimately try and get at the task at hand. And that's to win a gold and do well at the Olympics. We want to win,” the Manchester City player told Tokyo 2020 in a recent interview. “So I think it's exciting and obviously I have hopes to make our roster and go to the Olympics and do my best.”
The burden of history
The current American squad carries a heavy weight of past glories. These players of today are the latest in a long line of trailblazing world stars like Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly, Michelle Akers and Abby Wambach – to name but a few legends who changed the game and raised the bar year after year
Anything short of gold is failure for the USA women’s national team. That’s a heavy load to pull around. But today’s players, proud of the tradition and eager to uphold it, wouldn’t have it any other way. They love to play from the front and it’s in their DNA to have high expectations and leave the hoping to the rest of the pack.
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“This team is equipped to deal with adversity,” concluded Dunn, throwing down a gauntlet to the other 11 competing nations with under three months to go before kick-off in July. “After the break [of over a year due to COVID-19 and the postponement of the Games] We’ve been able to re-focus and reset.”
Rapinoe is right on board with the rest of her ambitious teammates. “There are always challenges. You don’t win anything without challenges and obstacles,” she insisted, a winning glint in her eye. “So everything has something. But I think our mentality is just to get through it, just do it and get to the field where we can be our best.”
If the Americans manage to hit anywhere near their best on the pitches of Japan, it will mean sleepless nights and hard times for the rest of the field. These four-star gold medallists, accustomed to winning and with an axe to grind over the disappointments of five years ago, aim to make it five golds and two world titles on the trot.
Anything short of that – by their own punishing standards – would be failure.