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Top-Ranked U.S. Women's Soccer Team Falls To Sweden In Olympic Stadium With No Fans

U.S. player Christen Press reacts as Sweden's players celebrate their third goal during a women's soccer match at the Olympics on Wednesday in Tokyo.
Ricardo Mazalan
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AP
U.S. player Christen Press reacts as Sweden's players celebrate their third goal during a women's soccer match at the Olympics on Wednesday in Tokyo.

Updated July 21, 2021 at 8:21 AM ET

TOKYO — It was a devastating start to the Tokyo Olympics for the U.S. women's soccer team. The U.S., ranked No. 1 and the reigning World Cup champions, played a familiar foe: Sweden. And unfortunately for the U.S., it was a familiar result. Sweden beat them 3-0.

"We got our a**** kicked, didn't we. Just a little tight, just a little nervous," U.S. star Megan Rapinoe told NPR after the game. "We had a few chances that we could have taken better that would have shifted the game quite a bit."

In the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, Sweden won against the U.S. in the quarterfinals, denying the squad a medal. The U.S. came into these Games seeking to become the first women's team to ever take Olympic gold after winning the World Cup.

Wednesday's loss to fifth-ranked Sweden will make that feat more difficult, but does not rule it out.

The vast majority of the starting lineup in this game – seven out of 11 – were players who played in that 2016 match against Sweden. Those include big names like Alex Morgan and Kelley O'Hara.

Players from the U.S. women's soccer team warm up during their first round match between Sweden and United States during the Tokyo Olympic Games.
Dan Mullan / Getty Images
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Getty Images
The U.S. came into these Games seeking to become the first women's team to ever take Olympic gold after winning the World Cup. That will be more of an uphill climb now.

The action took place in a nearly empty stadium. Olympic events in Tokyo are happening without fans because of a coronavirus-related state of emergency. As the players warmed up, an announcer called out each of their names – and no cheers followed for superstars such as Rapinoe and Rose Lavelle.

The stadium was so quiet that press in the stands could actually hear snippets of what the players were yelling to one another. The gates where crowds usually enter were sealed closed, and the only food that appeared to be available was sold in the media center.

"I'm not going to lie, that part sucked," Rapinoe said when asked about the empty stands. "Obviously you go to a major tournament, one of the best parts is just the buzz that you get. I'm not saying that we should have fans — I don't think we should, actually — so it is what it is. I think just being thankful that we even have a tournament. But definitely, it changes the dynamic a lot."

In a normal Olympics, the first U.S. women's soccer game would be played in front of a packed stadium with throngs of fans who traveled from all over the world.

It was a most unusual game for the U.S., which played without its usual attacking zeal. Sweden dominated the first half with strong attacking runs and several defensive stops. Sweden got on the board in the 25th minute when Stina Blackstenius headed the ball into the goal. "Song 2" by Blur was startling as it blasted through the stadium.

The U.S. almost equalized just before halftime when midfielder Lavelle narrowly missed a goal off the post.

During halftime, a video of a small group of cheering fans came onto the stadium jumbotron — almost emphasizing their absence.

The U.S. mixed up its lineup with two substitutions at the half, including defensive star Julie Ertz and veteran Carli Lloyd. Rapinoe subbed in about 10 minutes later. Still, Sweden scored two more times — with another goal from Blackstenius and one from Lina Hurtig.

In the group stage, the U.S. women will have two more games – against Australia and New Zealand. The top two teams in their group of four will then move on to the knockout round.

U.S. player Christen Press said the team is already looking ahead. "The rhetoric's already 'Heads up, put it behind us and on to the next game,' " she said. "There's no time in a tournament like this to dwell."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Merrit Kennedy is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers a broad range of issues, from the latest developments out of the Middle East to science research news.
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As an arts correspondent based at NPR West, Mandalit del Barco reports and produces stories about film, television, music, visual arts, dance and other topics. Over the years, she has also covered everything from street gangs to Hollywood, police and prisons, marijuana, immigration, race relations, natural disasters, Latino arts and urban street culture (including hip hop dance, music, and art). Every year, she covers the Oscars and the Grammy awards for NPR, as well as the Sundance Film Festival and other events. Her news reports, feature stories and photos, filed from Los Angeles and abroad, can be heard on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, Alt.latino, and npr.org.