WASHINGTON – It seemed the script couldn’t have been written any better.
After a disappointing loss to England over the weekend, the U.S. women’s national soccer team faced an uphill battle to win their first tournament of 2017.
Then England lost to Germany, and all of a sudden, the Americans’ fate was back in their own hands going into their final match of the SheBelieves Cup Tuesday night at RFK Stadium.
But an upset loss was the U.S. team’s destiny, delivered by France.
In its second year, the tournament featured four of the world’s top-ranked women’s soccer teams and came to a close Tuesday in Washington, after previous double headers in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. The team with the best record after three games was crowned champion.
At long last, it seemed likely that the U.S. team, the reigning Women’s World Cup champions – who narrowly defeated Olympic winners Germany in their opening game, before losing 1-0 to England on Saturday – would win the tournament for the second year in a row.
“No one said it would be easy, but we control our own destiny,” read a post from the team’s official Twitter account as the starting lineups were announced.
Fans felt it, too. Despite the threat of rain, nearly 22,000 supporters showed up to cheer on their heroes, roaring as the U.S. players took the field for warmups.
The noise continued as the U.S. bossed the early minutes of the game, stringing together passes with verve and looking all-but destined to march on to the triumph their loyal fans had braved the elements to see.
How quickly things changed.
After the opening minutes of confident play, a couple of defensive errors – and the speed of the French attack – saw the U.S. fall behind 2-0 inside the first 10 minutes of the game.
Although the Americans recovered somewhat, showing some particularly strong play early in the second half, a third French goal in the 63rd minute from Camille Abily put the game out of reach for the hosts.
“France were as direct as I’ve seen them,” U.S. head coach Jill Ellis said after the game. “They put our backline under a lot of pressure.”
It was the Americans’ second loss in as many games, and their worst defeat since their infamous 4-0 loss to Brazil in the semifinals of the 2007 Women’s World Cup.
As the rain poured down on a noticeably patchy field, the aura of invincibility that has followed the team since its triumph two summers ago took another hit.
Life hasn’t been entirely easy for the U.S. women in the year and a half since they won the World Cup (and, in the process, rocketed their fanbase to new heights).
They won last year’s inaugural SheBelieves Cup through a series of narrow victories, but lost disappointingly early in the Olympics in August, falling to Sweden on penalty kicks in the quarterfinals.
Off the field, there have been other issues.
Hope Solo, the team’s once-undisputed starting goalkeeper, was suspended by U.S. Soccer late last summer after her pointed comments about Sweden’s playing style in the Olympics — just the latest in a series of well-documented conduct issues.
There have also been hints of political discontent among players. The team’s players’ union recently replaced its leadership, while Megan Rapinoe’s flag protest took a blow last week with U.S. Soccer’s announcement requiring players to stand for anthems.
But for Ellis, on the pitch at least, some growing pains are to be expected.
“Obviously we’re very, very disappointed in the outcome of the match,” Ellis said. “But (we’re) not undeterred in terms of the path we’re on.”
Since the World Cup, a number of high-profile players have retired, including Abby Wambach, Lauren Holiday and Christie Rampone.
In their absence, Ellis has been praised for her willingness to give chances to talented youngsters, such as Mallory Pugh, who made last year’s Olympic team at age 18, and Rose Lavelle, who earned woman-of-the-match honors in her senior debut Saturday against England.
Ellis also spoke about recent tactical adjustments she’s made, including the switch to playing just three defenders. The change, when executed well, has allowed the team to better possess the ball and play out of the back. But at other times, it’s left them vulnerable on the counter, as happened on Tuesday against France.
“It was obviously the most pressure we’ve had to deal with, in terms of pace of pressure, and how fast it was coming. And they basically matched three up on our three,” Ellis said of the challenge France gave to the Americans’ three-back system.
But she said she’s committed to the rebuilding process for the long haul. “That’s where it’s a learning curve for us,” she said.
Her players agreed.
“I think it’s something we can excel in,” midfielder Morgan Brian said of the new formation, which Ellis has been employing since last fall. “Right now, it’s just about getting better and more consistent.”
“I think we just have to get more comfortable,” winger Crystal Dunn said of the tactical adjustments. “We’ve played (the new formation) a good amount now, but we can always get better.”
Despite Tuesday’s deflating result, Ellis saw some positives from the game.
“In terms of (number of) attacks against France, this is actually as dangerous as we’ve been,” she said. “And we didn’t get rewarded for those.”
Unlike its recent opponents, who will be competing in the women’s Euro 2017 this summer, the U.S. doesn’t have a major tournament on the horizon, so now is the time for experimentation, according to Ellis.
And she said she’s willing to have a few bumps in the road in order to help her team improve, particularly when it comes to ball possession.
“That was a big theme for us, going through this tournament — (to have) the confidence to deal with pressure, to want to try and play out,” Ellis said. “The way our game is headed, (whoever) has the ball obviously has a better chance of winning. And I think we’ve tried to work on that specific thing in terms of this tournament.”
Through everything, however, the fans have been there.
And judging by the rousing cheers for the home side that erupted even in the dying minutes of Tuesday’s disheartening loss, don’t expect them to turn their backs on the team anytime soon.
“It’s nice to go to each city and see 25- or 30,000 fans,” said defender and Washington-area native Ali Krieger. “It’s an incredible feeling as a player.”