TOKYO — It was not the color medal the U.S. Women's National Soccer team had hoped to win at the Olympics. But the dominant 4-3 victory over Australia gave the top-ranked U.S. the bronze medal. In the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games, the U.S. was bounced out of the Olympics in the quarterfinals.
Then, as now, the United States is the reigning women's World Cup champion and the team had hoped to do something never done before: win an Olympic gold medal following a World Cup title. But uneven play in the Olympic tournament with losses to Sweden in group play and Canada in the semifinals dashed the U.S. team's golden hopes.
Two U.S. veterans ensured a better outcome in the team's final Tokyo Olympics appearance.
Megan Rapinoe scored the USWNT's first two goals against Australia — including a beautiful corner kick that curled into the goal in the eighth minute. Australia's Sam Kerr evened the score in the 17th minute. But Rapinoe would not be denied, answering quickly with a powerful strike four minutes later.
Carli Lloyd at 39 is the oldest player on the U.S. team, and she made it 3-1 with a goal in stoppage time.
The U.S. continued its scoring ways in the second half with Lloyd's second goal to make it 4-1. Australia would not quit. Caitlin Foord had her own answer in the 51st minute to keep the game closer at 4-2. The U.S. kept attacking and countered it with its stifling defense reminiscent of its domination during the 2019 Women's World Cup.
But Australia would not quit. Emily Gielnik scored in the 90th minute with a curving shot from the top of the penalty box beyond the outstretched arms of U.S. goalkeeper Adrianna Franch to make it 4-3.
Franch got her first Olympic start with goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher unable to play. She exited the semifinal game against Canada in the first half when she landed awkwardly and hyperextended her right knee.
The rhythm, energy and tempo were very different in the bronze medal game compared to when these same two teams tangled in group play and ended in a scoreless draw.
Still, this was the U.S. squad's seventh Olympic appearance and its sixth overall Olympic medal (four gold, a silver and now bronze). The next-closest country on the women's soccer medal count is Germany with four.
A MARTINEZ, HOST:
The U.S. Women's National Soccer Team won a bronze medal today at the Tokyo Olympics. They beat Australia 4-3, but it wasn't the medal that the reigning Women's World Cup champs had hoped to play for. NPR's Russell Lewis is in Tokyo. He joins us now.
Russell, the women's team had a pretty uneven performance in Tokyo. I think that's fair to say. How did they look today?
RUSSELL LEWIS, BYLINE: Well, I think they came out trying to prove a point that they're a better squad than they showed during this tournament. I mean, let's not forget in group play that - the opening loss to Sweden and then the lackluster, scoreless draw against the same Australia team that they beat here today. The U.S. head coach, Vlatko Andonovski, says winning the bronze medal showed that the U.S. can still rally.
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VLATKO ANDONOVSKI: That first loss made a mark for the rest of the tournament. And to come out of it with the game - or finish the tournament with the game that we did, I'm just proud of the team. I'm proud of the players.
LEWIS: And, boy, what a show it was against Australia, led by their veterans. Megan Rapinoe scored directly from a corner kick, curling the ball into the goal in the eighth minute. Australia equalized a bit later, and then Rapinoe did it again, scoring. Then it was Carli Lloyd in stoppage time at the end of the first half to make it 3-1. Lloyd scored again in the second half to make it 4-1. Australia would score twice more to get to 4-3. And that is how it ended.
MARTINEZ: After they lost to Canada, Rapinoe was talking about how they just didn't have the juice and she was searching for answers. Why do you think they struggled so much?
LEWIS: You know, it's really hard to know. I mean, after the group stage, where I think it is fair, as you said, to characterize their play as uneven, I mean, they really took it to the Netherlands, the reigning European champion, the same squad that they beat in the final of the 2019 Women's World Cup. They played the full 90 minutes, ended tied 2-2, went into extra time and then a penalty kick shootout to win, led by the stellar goalkeeping of Alyssa Naeher, who, let's not forget, was injured in the 1-0 semifinal loss to Canada. And it is hard to fully replace someone of her caliber, but that's not on her replacement, Adrianna Franch. The U.S. offense just sputtered against Canada.
MARTINEZ: You alluded to the veteran players. Well, what's next for them?
LEWIS: Well, Carli Lloyd talked about that after the game. She's the oldest player on the squad at 39 and also the most experienced, longtime leader and a veteran. She wouldn't say what's next for her, but you could still see her competitive fire.
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CARLI LLOYD: Nothing's a guarantee. You know, I've said it all along. The only reason I'm still here is because I'm just grinding it out, and you have to continue to perform. I think it's really hard to get to this level, but it's even harder to stay here for as long as some of us have.
LEWIS: You have a lot of younger players waiting in the wings who really want to make a difference. So we will see what the next year or two brings.
MARTINEZ: That's NPR's Russell Lewis in Tokyo. Russell, thanks.
LEWIS: You're welcome.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.