MELBOURNE, Australia — Vlatko Andonovski sat at the podium, tears welling in his eyes, as he tried to come to terms with what had just happened.
For the first time ever, the United States will not progress to the quarterfinals of a Women’s World Cup, having fallen to Sweden on penalties in the round of 16 after a scoreless draw during which the Americans did everything but find the goal they needed to win the match.
It was a lot for the U.S. coach to process.
“We deserved to win this game,” he said.
He’s probably right.
After a dismal group stage, the four-time champions dominated Sweden from start to finish on Sunday at Melbourne Rectangular Stadium. They took 22 shots, half of them on target, but couldn’t buy a goal.
Lina Hurtig then won the match on a shot that was initially saved by U.S. keeper Alyssa Naeher, only for VAR to determine the rebound had just barely entered the goal before Naeher could claw it away.
“Until the last whistle is blown you have hopes that the ball didn’t cross the line,” Andonovski said. “That just shows how cruel this game sometimes can be, and how small a detail can make the difference between winning and losing.”
Andonovski was heavily criticized during the group stage, during which the U.S. failed to win at least two games for the only time in its nine World Cup appearances. The U.S. struggled to score in those matches, too.
Sunday’s performance was better — way better — in every way. The coach reinserted winger Trinity Rodman into his lineup after using her off the bench in the scoreless group finale against Portugal and handed Emily Sonnett her first career World Cup start; both players were excellent.
“We had a great game plan, great strategy,” Andonovski said. “We had the right personnel on the field to execute the game plan. And if I could coach this game all over again, I’ll probably do the same.”
Mušović was probably the only reason the U.S. didn’t score this time around.
“She made some saves that not many keepers in the world can make,” Andonovski said. “I can’t think of any other reason why we’re out of the tournament.
“I’m very proud of them and devastated for them that they would have to go out and the way we did,” Andonovski, speaking of his team, continued. “I thought that we represented this country proud and showed what we stand for and did everything right.”
Smith, the 22-year-old forward who scored twice and set up another in the Americans’ 3-0 opening victory over Vietnam on July 22 but did little else in the next three matches, was particularly inconsolable after missing her shootout attempt. She wasn’t alone.
“I want to be there for them,” Andonovski said of his players. “I love them all. They’re my players, but they’re my friends. We spent four years together. They got their first caps with me, their first call-ups with me. We’ve spent sad times, good times. I don’t want to see them like that.”
Inevitably, Andonovski was asked about his job status after the match, and if he’d like to continue leading the squad. It won’t necessarily be his decision. After four years at the helm, his contract with U.S. Soccer expires later this year.
Morgan, a four time World Cup vet and two time champ under Jill Ellis, Andonovski’s predecessor, was asked after the match whether she felt the team had been set up to succeed by the coaching staff during this cycle — one that also included a loss to Canada in the Olympic semifinal two year ago.
“I mean, I can’t even process that question,” Morgan replied. “Sorry.”
Said Andonovski, “I never coached to save my job — I always came in to do my job, to prepare the team to represent the country in the past best possible manner. I wish I can think about the last four years in this moment, but right now all I think about is the players. I see the players in tears, and it hurts.
“I don’t want to think about me,” he added. “I think it’s selfish to think about me, my future, what I’m going to do when we have 20-year-old players going through this.”
Doug McIntyre is a soccer writer for FOX Sports. Before joining FOX Sports in 2021, he was a staff writer with ESPN and Yahoo Sports and he has covered United States men’s and women’s national teams at multiple FIFA World Cups. Follow him on Twitter @ByDougMcIntyre.
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