If the U.S. women's national team wants to win their fifth gold medal in an Olympic women's football tournament, they need to get through Friday's quarterfinal (7 a.m. ET) against a team that has looked like an early favorite: the Netherlands.
While the U.S. is limping out of Group G with a loss, a draw and a win, the Netherlands are flying. They topped Group F with a plus-13 goal differential, and even their one draw of the group stage was a wild 3-3 shootout with Brazil, another top team competing in Japan this summer. But the shaky performances of the group stage need to be behind the U.S., because if they lose to the Netherlands, they are going home, and they will match their worst-ever finish in a major tournament.
"This is where the real tournament starts," said Alex Morgan. "You have to win and beat the best to get to that gold-medal match."
USWNT as the underdog
Today, the USWNT finds itself in unfamiliar territory. For perhaps the first time, the USWNT arrives in an Olympic quarterfinal as the clear underdog. Dutch midfielder Danielle van de Donk told reporters that the Netherlands' high-scoring performances in the group stage should serve as proof that "we are not afraid of America."
"Somehow I feel like, save the best for last, but maybe they are not the best at all, this tournament," she added of meeting the USWNT so early in the tournament.
The U.S. has certainly gotten to know the Dutch team quite well. The USWNT beat them 2-0 in the 2019 World Cup final, and when the USWNT resumed playing after about eight months of dormancy due to the pandemic, their first game back late last year was in the Netherlands. But those meetings don't mean much for the Americans, U.S. coach Vlatko Andonovski said -- not because the Netherlands are expected to change their approach, but because they aren't.
"The Netherlands are not a big surprise for the simple fact that they believe in their system, and they believe in what they do," Andonovski said. "They're very rigid at times, which makes them who they are and as good as they are. Their system works and they've shown that over and over in different games."
If the USWNT is going to get past the Dutch team, they need to turn off the faucet of goals coming from Vivianne Miedema. She has been on fire, with eight goals in the group stage at a rate of one goal every 22 minutes on the field. She has already set the women's record for the most goals scored in an Olympics prior to the knockout rounds as her team racked up 21 goals over the three matches.
But what makes the Dutch team dangerous is that it's not just Miedema the USWNT needs to worry about, in the way that all of their attention against Australia focused on Sam Kerr. Lieke Martens and Van de Donk are also two especially potent pieces of the Dutch attack that the USWNT will need to contain. The Dutch attack oozes chemistry -- the attackers have an uncanny ability to read each other on the field, and they are well-drilled on set pieces, meaning the threats are varied.
Limiting the Dutch attack ought to be enough on Friday; the Dutch team has shown defensive vulnerability, and the USWNT should feel confident they can score goals. In the group stage, the Netherlands surprisingly conceded three goals to Zambia, a first-time Olympic team that isn't on the level of most of the other teams in Japan. Then they conceded twice to China, another underpowered team known more for its disciplined defensive bunkering and organization than its firepower. (The Dutch conceded eight times in the group stage, more than any other team that reached the quarterfinals.)
The question is whether the Netherlands will stick to their approach from the previous games or give Andonovski the surprise he suggested he isn't expecting.
"I don't know if they are very vulnerable: they are very good defensively and they are very disciplined and we've seen that in numerous occasions," Andonovski said. "Obviously, as open as they play sometimes, they do have areas of the field that are more open, so hopefully we can take advantage of it."
Andonovski's tactics under the microscope
When a manager switches up how his team plays, the success or failure that follows will almost certainly be pinned on him. As former USWNT coach April Heinrichs once said: "In coaching, you're either a jackass or a genius."
After a disastrous opening 3-0 loss against Sweden, the USWNT unleashed itself against New Zealand to run up the goal differential with a 6-1 win, but then played with a conservative -- some might say "scared" -- approach against Australia for a 0-0 draw. Vlatko Andonovski and his staff knew that the U.S. only needed a draw against Australia to advance, so the thought process seemed to be: why risk a loss going after a win?
In the end, the USWNT clinched its spot in the quarterfinals, but the team didn't look like the USWNT fans have been watching for years. The team that dominates and imposes itself was nowhere to be found. When told Thursday about the reaction to the USWNT's style of play against Australia, it seemed to be news to Crystal Dunn, who said: "I'm not on social media. I have no idea what's going on in the outside world: it's been the best thing.
"But it's funny you say that because I think a lot of people don't understand we're here to compete and win a gold medal. However we get there, winning is the most important thing.
"Yes, fans, outsiders looking in, are probably like, 'Oh this is so different, we've never seen the U.S. doing this,' but at the same time, it's about executing a game plan and moving on from one round to another," Dunn added. "Whatever tactics, plans we're given, it's our job as players to trust and believe in ourselves and each other and live to fight another day."
Winning mentality missing for USWNT in Australia draw
The USWNT advances to the knockout stages in Tokyo, but fails to impress in a 0-0 draw with Australia.
When asked about making the difficult call to rein the USWNT's attacking instincts, Andonovski admitted it's a bold approach and probably not what the players would prefer.
"It's not easy, and sometimes you have to sacrifice some of the things that we believe or we've worked on to be able to execute the game plan," he said. "We saw that in Game 3 in the group stage -- that was not something that we've done in the previous games, but it was a game plan and I felt like we executed it well from the defensive standpoint.
"It's not easy for the players from the tactical and technical standpoint to execute it, but they've done a great job," he added. "Also, from the mental standpoint, it's not easy, but again lots of credit to them in being ready to do whatever it takes for the team to be successful."
Echoes of the 2015 World Cup
The prevailing memory of the 2015 World Cup for Americans may be Carli Lloyd's goal from the midway line en route to her hat-trick in the final. But before that -- and before the USWNT's dominance -- the U.S. looked to be struggling. The U.S. never lost in that tournament before they won the trophy, but they played some bad soccer early on, leading fans and pundits alike to worry the USWNT was in for a short tournament.
The players stuck to a common refrain: we're just doing what the coaches want.
"We're just following the direction of our coaches, the coaching plan, doing everything they ask of us," Lloyd said before the 2015 quarterfinal. "At the end of the day, I've got full faith and confidence in everyone that we'll find our rhythm. We're working, we're grinding, the effort's there."
After the USWNT won their semifinal against Germany and finally played their best soccer of the World Cup, Megan Rapinoe echoed that sentiment: "We stuck to our game plan and stuck to what our coaches were telling us. We always stayed true to what we were doing and felt it was going to come together."
That sounds a lot like the players in this Olympics so far.
"It was a tactical decision by Vlatko for us to shift defensively, play a little more conservatively and allow them to get impatient and play it long and give it back to us," Morgan said after the 0-0 draw to Australia.
"The tactics we've been given is what we need to execute and we trust our staff to put us in the best position to succeed," Dunn said Thursday. "So yeah, every game is different and every opponent is different and with that comes new tactics we need to execute."
While the players haven't openly said it, there is a slight tinge of dissatisfaction in their comments, a wish that they could unleash themselves and show the world what they are capable of. But it's probably fine that the players feel this way, especially if the 2015 World Cup is any guide. After all, the Olympics is a lot of games packed into a small time frame, and teams can risk burning themselves out and peaking too early if they go full throttle from the beginning.
Christen Press hinted (ever so slightly) that she and her teammates would prefer to play a more attacking style, but she also made it clear she understands why the game plan worked, and that just because that's how the U.S. played in the group stage, that doesn't mean the knockout round will be the same.
"This tournament is really tough, with the amount of games you need to play without as many days in between as other tournaments, so there has to be tactical sophistication in how we manage," Press said Thursday. "Ultimately, when this team's at its best, we are relentless and we are lethal."
She later added: "In the last three games you've seen us take different tactical approaches in the group stage, and now we're in the knockout phase and I think that'll look really different. The team is really hungry, and the group stage has left us feeling like we have more to give -- I think that's a great thing, it's a powerful thing and it's intimidating."