MELBOURNE, Australia - Lynn Williams standing but more like frozen while next to her equally shocked teammates, holding both of her hands near her chest, each splayed finger appearing as though she’d just dropped something important.
Alyssa Naeher cradling something very important - the ball - and refusing to let go, as if by hugging it close, she just might get that call reversed.
Megan Rapinoe smiling through teary eyes, her emotions clashing as the end of her famed career ambles to an unfitting close.
These are the faces of utter and abject disappointment. We’ve never seen the United States women’s national team look like this, like lost tourists at a tournament they had once known so well. Williams’s traumatized expression. Naeher appearing as though she’d like to have a word with management to file a very angry complaint. Rapinoe wilting in her final international match and looking confused over whether to laugh or cry during her last moments on a cold Sunday night inside Melbourne Rectangular Stadium.
Almost a month ago, they arrived at the women’s World Cup held in Australia and New Zealand, and hopefully the players at least got some cool, new stamps on their passports. Because they’re certainly not coming home with a third consecutive trophy.
We’ve never watched the Americans leave the World Cup this early. This will officially be scored as the USWNT losing 5-4 to Sweden in a penalty-kick shootout after a scoreless draw. However, the record does not show the agony. Seen through the players in this storied program who performed so unevenly that American dominance in this game should now be spoken of in past tense terms. And felt by the fans who traveled across the globe, reworking their itineraries on the fly and fighting off jet lag just to get their hearts broken in a different hemisphere.
At least, for Nadine and Dave Parsons, the wine was worth it.
This is what belief gone wrong looks like. Four married couples from Texas have been in Australia for about two weeks. Soccer-loving Greg Gipson was the master planner of the trip. At the last World Cup in France, his group attended every U.S. match. The U.S. made it look easy, so Gwen Gipson told me they decided to skip the group stage this time and enjoy themselves a little while the Americans breezed through. Because they had so much faith in USWNT, these soccer aficionados wound up witnessing only one match. And it was the most painful one in program history. The trip, however, wasn’t all bad. The Parsons, Texans temporarily living in Japan, ditched the group matches for a winery tour in Adelaide.
“Fantastic,” Dave raved about the whites and reds. “We’re going to go back.”
This is what unrequited devotion looks like. Portland Thorns superfans Nicole and Dan Froelich booked their flight from Vancouver, B.C. to Sydney - under the wrong assumption that the Americans would win their group stage and begin the knockout round in that Australian city, not this one. What followed was a travel nightmare: Their original flight was delayed 10 hours. They slept in the airport until 3 a.m. They sat near the back of the plane for the 17-hour flight, and when the flight hit turbulence, they felt every scary jolt and shake. They landed at SYD on Friday night, fatigued yet still fanatical, and less than 21 hours later, they caught another flight to Melbourne. Dan got stuck in the middle seat.
“ooooof. that was rough!” Dan texted me following the match - about the soccer, not the travel. Though those five Os in ‘oof’ revealed some suffering, the Froelichs never complained.
Neither did a single protest escaped the loopy smiles worn by New York City friends Taylor Wells and Bri Cullimore. They sat in their seats, surviving on Red Bull and vibes after landing for their spontaneous trip to Melbourne Sunday morning. Their itinerary: New York to Los Angeles, Los Angeles to Fiji, Fiji to Sydney, and Sydney to Melbourne . . . and Monday morning, they planned to leave Melbourne on a 6 a.m. flight, because this is what crazy looks like.
“We love the U.S. women’s national team so much!” Cullimore yelled through her sleep deprivation.
“That’s how much!” Wells echoed. “It’s been like refreshing to my soul to see grown-a-- men wearing a Crystal Dunn jersey, wearing a Rose Lavelle jersey. That’s been really incredible for me to see, as a sports fan, as a woman, as a woman in sports business, it’s amazing.”
This is the fervor that has fueled Team USA. And for 90 minutes, the Americans appeared as though they could feel all the passion and hope from their fans. Through 90 minutes, they were in control of a game they’ve owned for decades, well before this current roster had taken shape.
The USWNT won its first World Cup when co-captain Alex Morgan was just two years old. Later, another iteration of the super program turned sports bra celebrations into a fad before Sophia Smith was even born. This was the legacy the new United States team was living up to for 90 minutes. Trinity Rodman pressuring Sweden’s defense and leading the American attack to a 6-2 shot advantage in the first half. Morgan coming oh-so-close on potential goals - and being shut out twice by Swedish goalkeeper Zecira Musovic.
But for a second straight match the United States never scored, opening the door for the game to be taken over by randomness and penalty kicks. And ultimately, heartache.
In the 99th minute, when fans noticed the flash of pale blue hair, a roar reverberated throughout the stadium, for the great Rapinoe would be entering the match. An ovation worthy of a superhero, as though hiding beneath her bulky winter coat was some magic left over from 2019. But underneath that outerwear was just a 38-year-old woman who probably shouldn’t have taken all those corner kicks since they led to nothing. And in the most crucial stage, with her team leading 3-2 in penalty kicks, Rapinoe stepped up for her turn. She could have given the U.S. a nearly insurmountable lead, but her shot sailed over the crossbar. Smiling awkwardly, Rapinoe returned to the comfort of her teammates.
And then, the nightmare.
Kelley O’Hara’s attempt hit the post, setting up the Swedes for the winner. Though Naeher appeared to stop Lina Hurtig’s kick and quickly collected herself to deflect the rebound, upon review the ball did in fact cross the line. Just barely enough to send the Americans home. Stunned, Naeher wouldn’t let go to the ball. Williams wouldn’t move. Rapinoe couldn’t stop laugh-crying. This is what American soccer now looks like.