It was a sequence rarely, if ever, seen at the ultimate heights of this sport: a goalkeeper blocking an attempt during a penalty kick shootout, then making a desperate bid to prevent the ball from breaking the plane of the goal line.
If Naeher’s efforts against Sweden’s Lina Hurtig were successful, the tiebreaker would continue — and so too would the Americans’ bid for a record third consecutive championship. Video technology rendered the verdict: The ball had crossed the line by maybe the width of a pencil.
The United States was out of the World Cup at the earliest stage in program history, eliminated in a seven-round tiebreaker, 5-4, after a scoreless 120 minutes. In eight previous tournaments, the four-time champions had always made the semifinals. The result also marked the first time the United States has gone two straight major tournaments without advancing to the final. (Two years ago, it lost in the Olympic semifinals.)
“Until the last whistle is blown, you hope the ball didn’t cross the line,” Coach Vlatko Andonovski said. “That just shows how cruel this game sometimes can be and how a small, small detail makes the difference between winning and losing.”
The United States had a chance to secure passage to the quarterfinals, leading 3-2 entering the fifth — and scheduled final — round of the tiebreaker. Sophia Smith, a rising star who scored two goals in the opener, sent her attempt flying over the crossbar.
Both teams converted in the sixth round. Then in the seventh, after Kelley O’Hara hit the right post, Hurtig targeted the lower left corner. Naeher read it perfectly and blocked the shot. The play was still active, though, and as the ball drifted toward the goal, Naeher made her desperate move.
Initially, neither referee Stephanie Frappart nor her assistant indicated whether it had gone in. Players for both sides stood motionless. What had just happened?
The video assistant referee then informed Frappart via her earpiece: Good goal. Game over. Sweden danced deliriously. The U.S. players broke down in tears.
“It’s tough to have your World Cup end by a millimeter,” Naeher said. “I thought I had it. Unfortunately, it must have just slipped in.”
And with that, a gallant U.S. effort had fallen short. Rebounding from a poor performances in the group stage, the Americans dominated the match but failed to solve goalkeeper Zecira Musovic, who made six sensational saves. The United States finished with heavy advantages in shots (21-7), shots on target (11-1) and corner kicks (9-3).
“We did enough to get the job done,” defender Crystal Dunn said.
Scoring, though, was a problem throughout the tournament. After scoring three against Vietnam in an unimpressive opener, the U.S. team managed just one goal in the last three games. It was blanked by Portugal in the last group match and, despite a much-improved overall performance, failed to find the target against the beleaguered Swedes.
The scoring drought came amid strong defensive efforts: just one goal conceded over 390 minutes.
Unlike the previous matches, the United States placed a wealth of shots on target. Musovic, however, punched, kicked, blocked and smacked everything that came her way.
“She made some saves that not many goalkeepers in the world can make, and I can’t think of any other reason why we’re out of the tournament,” Andonovski said.
In the shootout, though, Musovic did not make any saves. After converting their first three, the Americans were at fault on three of the last four. Aside from Smith and O’Hara failing to put the ball on target, Megan Rapinoe missed high in the fourth round. By scoring, she would have moved her team to the cusp of victory.
“It’s a sick joke to f—ing miss a penalty,” Rapinoe said.
That faulty shot proved to be the last act of Rapinoe’s extraordinary career in major tournaments. She had announced before the World Cup she was going to retire this fall. A star on the 2015 and 2019 championship teams, she was a secondary player on this squad, and in three appearances as a sub, she looked very much like a 38-year-old nearing the end.
“I wish we were moving on and I could guarantee a championship and do all that,” she said. “But I feel like it doesn’t take away anything from this experience or my career in general. I feel so lucky and so grateful to play as long as I have on successful teams.”
Through much of Sunday’s match, the United States looked as though it would march on.
Andonovski’s lineup and tactical changes worked. Emily Sonnett’s first World Cup start brought structure to defensive midfield.
Sonnett, who can fill a variety of roles, was a member of the 2019 squad and has made 77 appearances, but until Sunday, her only World Cup minutes came as a late-game sub in a group match four years ago and last week against Portugal. Her last U.S. start came in July 2022.
From the start, the Americans were organized and determined, though breaking down Sweden remained a tall task.
Trinity Rodman, the 21-year-old winger for the NWSL’s Washington Spirit, was lively on the right side, getting into one-on-one situations that, regardless of the opponent, usually work in her favor. She drew two hard fouls, won a corner kick and took the initiative with a 22-yard effort at Musovic and an angled bid that Musovic parried aside.
The Americans continued to grow more comfortable in the attack. Captain Lindsey Horan nearly provided the breakthrough in the 34th minute, heading Andi Sullivan’s corner kick over Musovic’s reach but off the crossbar.
As the half transpired, Sweden enjoyed less and less possession. Only the halftime whistle interrupted the U.S. progress.
The Americans picked up where they left off, dominating possession and buzzing with threats. In the 53rd minute, Musovic made a tremendous save on Horan’s thunderous one-timer, flashing to her left for a touch save. Horan could not believe it, covering her face with her hands.
Andonovski turned to his bench 20 minutes into the second half, replacing the battered Rodman with Williams. The U.S. supporters roared their appreciation for the departing standout.
After a brief pause, the Americans were at it again. With Julie Ertz providing the defensive muscle, the Swedes failed to make inroads until an 85th-minute threat.
Alex Morgan threatened to break the deadlock in the 89th minute with a six-yard header. Again, Musovic was up to the task, reacting to her right to make a two-handed block.
Six minutes into extra time, Musovic denied Morgan’s near-post threat. She then dived to her right to push aside Williams’s angled shot headed for the far corner. In the 107th minute, she reached up to punch out Smith’s rising bid toward the near post.
The shootout brought an end to the U.S. campaign — and initiated soul-searching after a historically premature exit.
“We didn’t expect to be out in this moment,” Andonovski said. “We didn’t expect to go out the way we did. It’s emotional. It is hard.”