The USWNT Better Hope Its Coach Learned the Right Lesson From Its Quarterfinal Win

The U.S. women's national team won against a strong team in the Olympic quarterfinal.The match was back-and-forth and ended at 22. U.S. goalkeeper Alyssa Nateher made sure that the penalty shootout went smoothly. She stopped the first and fourth Dutch kicks, as well as the regulation penalty. Megan Rapinoe, penalty specialist, was the one to kick the final goal into the top corner. This sent the U.S. into semifinals.AdvertisementNaeher is the hero and has a history of being so adept at avoiding penalties that the U.S. should be happy with its chances to keep the score tied. However, just getting to the shootout against the Dutch team is a victory for a team who had struggled at these Olympics and needed key contributions from an unlikely source.AdvertisementAdvertisementEarly signs were alarming. The Netherlands won its first real chance. Star forward Vivianne Mildema managed to wrangle a deflection, turning, and firing before the U.S. defenders could respond. Miedema is a master at creating space with one step or a shift of weight. She has successfully evaded defenders with the economy and movement of a bullfighter.AdvertisementThe U.S. managed to fight back quickly. The Dutch defense did not display the same ferocity as the Swedish in the opening match. Although it is hard to fault the Netherlands for conceding three goals to Zambia and two to China, it is telling that Brazil, the other strong team in the group, managed to keep a clean slate against both of those opponents. (Brazil and Netherlands played to a 33-point draw in their match. The Dutch looked vulnerable when they couldn't control the game or stopped trying to control it with their offense.AdvertisementThe difference in defensive intensity allowed the U.S. to have a greater degree of freedom than it did against Sweden. The Americans seemed more comfortable putting together passes, while the Dutch midfielders were sometimes a step behind when following the runs of Sam Mewis and Lindsey Horan out of the midfield. They lost Mewis completely on the U.S. goal. Lynn Williams, her club teammate, was able to pick her up with a cross.AdvertisementWilliams, who was only 16 minutes long in the group stage, made the most difference for the U.S., at the very least before Naeher's heroics during the shootout. Williams scored the second goal for the Americans just minutes after she had assisted. She was able to bounce off of a corner kick a poorly-directed clearance. Although it was a simple play, the U.S. did not beat Australia or Sweden to as many crucial loose balls. She provided that energy and infusion.AdvertisementAdvertisementThe Dutch had more chances.Williams is not an uncommon quality. Williams is 28 years old and a three-time National Womens Soccer League Champion. She was also a former NWSL MVP. She has played nearly one goal or assist every 90 minutes throughout her career. Due to the number of talented forwards who are soaking up the minutes, she has appeared 38 times in the USWNT. She has never been in an Olympics or World Cup. (To give you an example, the next-most-inexperienced forward on the U.S. roster, Christen Press, has 152 caps.)AdvertisementWilliams was not supposed to be part of this team. The Olympic rosters typically have 18 players. This is five less than the World Cup squads. The rules were changed to allow teams to include four alternates due to the pandemic. Williams was one of these. These players provided the U.S. almost all its new blood. All four alternates were players not brought to the World Cup 2019. Only one was included in the initial 18 Olympic squads.AdvertisementYet, despite Williams's impact on the match, despite her relatively tired legs, U.S. Coach Vlatko andonovski replaced Williams in the 58th minutes with midfielder Sam Mewis and forward Carli Lloyd, Rose Lavelle and Christen Press. The Netherlands were already tied in the match. Miedema found space outside the box and hit a well-placed goal that Naeher was slow reacting to. The subs, who all played a significant role at these Games, restored the offense to the uninspiring status it had been in earlier Olympics. Lavelle terrorized the Dutch in the final of 2019, so the Dutch were able to control her. Press played a poor game, made worse by the offside flag. Rapinoe was the only substitute who did not challenge the exhausted Dutch team. He came on just a few minutes later. The Dutch had more chances. The U.S. had more success denying Miedema possession of the ball than stopping it from reaching her. The only danger to the U.S. was from players who were ruled offside.AdvertisementAdvertisementAdvertisementNaeher saved the Americans. She batted away the penalty of Barcelona's star Lieke Martens in the 81st minute to keep the game level. The Dutch won the first periods of extra time but were defeated by the USWNT before the game ended. The game quickly devolved into trench warfare with exhausted midfielders lobbing long balls at one another. This was a win for the U.S. Both Morgan and Press put the ball in the net, but they were both denied by offside calls.The good news for the U.S. in the semifinal is that Canada lost to Brazil in the quarterfinals. This meant that its players had to go through the same 30 minutes of extra time and a quick turnaround as the Americans. The U.S. is unlikely to face a blitz that is as intense as that of the Swedish opener, which saw both teams play their fifth game in twelve days. If the U.S. wants to take the lead and dominate the play, then Andonovski must consider how to spread the minutes beyond his normal rotation to allow Williams to showcase what they can do.