U.S. women follow calm leadership of Carli Lloyd, Becky Sauerbrunn
BRASILIA, Brazil -- There was annoyance. Maybe a touch of frustration. But in the aftermath of a surprising draw against Colombia in Tuesday's Group G finale, there was no worry in the words or faces of American players. If such feelings lurked beneath, they hid them masterfully.
U.S. women's national team co-captain Becky Sauerbrunn said only a loss would have been reason to worry because only a loss would have changed the calculus on a quarterfinal opponent and destination.
As in, where do we go from here?
Logistically, the answer didn't change after the draw against Colombia. All the United States needed to clinch first place in the group was a draw, and it got that point -- while at the same time getting plenty of rest for players who needed it and minutes for players who hadn't had many of those to this point in the tournament. It was a surprising result but not calamitous.
The Americans still woke up the next day and headed to Brasilia, the preferred plan all along.
But where do they go from here?
Less literally, after the charter flight to Brazil's capital, it's the question still to be answered as the United States prepares to face Sweden in Friday's Olympic quarterfinal (noon ET). Will the unsatisfying result in Manaus versus Colombia end up a footnote, like the scoreless draw against Sweden in last year's World Cup group stage? Or was it a harbinger of something more, a team not peaking at the right moment or short some necessary ingredient?
It is often the captains to whom we turn for answers.
"I wouldn't want a perfect journey to the top," said co-captain Carli Lloyd. "There's really no such thing. ... The [Golden State] Warriors, take for example, who were on a perfect run and then ended up not winning -- that's happened over and over with teams. And I think everyone just needs to take a deep breath and relax. We tied against Colombia, but it's all good."
I feel like that almost took the pressure off of us and allowed us to then grow as a team this year and push and progress in the ways that we want to and in our style.Tobin Heath on the United States' World Cup title
The captains a year ago were givens; the limited minutes Abby Wambach and Christie Rampone played in the World Cup were less important than their résumés. Their very presence pushed the team to a World Cup title that had become an almost Ahab-like quest.
That team was a reflection of them. New to the role, Sauerbrunn and Lloyd are reflections of the team they lead. A quietly confident team that believes it understands what is required to win a tournament like this, a team that wasn't going to sweat a draw on a sweltering night in Manaus.
"The culture of the team is so entrenched that probably as they came through it, they took on qualities of the program," U.S. coach Jill Ellis said of her two co-captains (although Lloyd wears the armband). "They were selected because they represent those traits so well."
Sweden coach Pia Sundhage -- who is familiar to American fans after leading the national team to two Olympic gold medals and nearly ending its World Cup drought -- said Thursday she was not surprised to see either Lloyd or Sauerbrunn as a captain. She affirmed this despite bumps in the road in her relationships with both players, including a frank assessment of Lloyd's temperament as recently as the eve of last year's World Cup (the coach chose only to praise Lloyd's skills this time around) and the long wait Sauerbrunn endured to crack Sundhage's roster.
Sauerbrunn is quietly contemplative, while Lloyd so often plays with what seems a silent fury. Both paid their dues to get where they are in ways that some of their younger teammates will never experience but need to understand.
"We [still] have a certain culture that's ingrained within our team," defender Meghan Klingenberg said. "That's to be fighters, to have an awesome mentality, to never give up. It's to practice when we're ... not together. So we have a really great culture to begin with. But I think that the captains that we have do a good job of bringing everybody together, making sure we're on the same page when we're playing, making sure that we have everything we need to be the best team we can be."
When asked where the team's ability to finish challenges comes, Megan Rapinoe suggests it's an identity learned through older players providing, shall we say, pointedly worded encouragement to never relent.
It is by design and necessity a cutthroat environment, like almost any that produces the best in the world at something. Yet it is different now, different because of the youth on the roster and the peace of mind a World Cup title gives the veterans -- not just the captains, but players in leadership roles like Tobin Heath, Alex Morgan and Hope Solo.
"I think even from last year, the World Cup, I feel like we were way more tense," Heath said. "Not to say that we don't have the same focus and the same intentions that we did last World Cup, but I think there was just so much built around ... winning that because we hadn't won [in 16 years], that there was this great pressure that not only I felt like we put on ourselves, but we had from the outside world as well.
"When we accomplished what we set out to do in the World Cup, I feel like that almost took the pressure off of us and allowed us to then grow as a team this year and push and progress in the ways that we want to and in our style. Now come the Olympics; we still have the same intentions and the same goals, but the feeling is a little more free in that way."
Which is why we wait to see how this team will respond.
The United States has plenty of tangible challenges ahead, first on Friday but also beyond if the team advances. That begins with a field in Brasilia that looked Thursday much the worse for wear on the eve of its ninth game in nine days. Olympic organizers didn't immediately respond to queries on who oversees the playing surface, but one end of the field had sizable swaths that were barren of grass.
Conditions that could keep the ball from playing true will affect another of the challenges awaiting the Americans, a Swedish team that isn't likely to let itself be drawn into an end-to-end game, just as it measured its steps in the scoreless draw a year ago in Winnipeg.
"They will park the bus," Ellis said of Sweden. "They will play as low as they possibly can, sit as low as they possibly can, and then look to transition. They're going to try and kill the game that way and make it very, very hard, not give up space."
That makes a U.S. midfield that has produced goals, directly from the foot of Lloyd or off a pair of Morgan Brian assists, all the more important in finding space. Tangibly and tactically, the United States needs the midfield, particularly Brian, to play to its full potential and with greater abandon.
"There's going to be 6 yards between their back line and their midfield line," Ellis said. "So for our midfield, it's going to be really important about how we find spaces to play. ... As we start to get to this point, it is more about letting them express themselves. I think we're going to have a lot of the ball in our opponent's half, and we've got to play. Morgan Brian is one of our most creative players; I'm really excited to see her. ...
"They've got to feel the game and read the game, and I think Mo, especially, does that exceptionally well."
That has everything to do with talent and tactics, but it comes from players in the right mindset to make use of those skills. After a win against France in March this year, Lloyd voiced frustration with a lack of service sent her way. The sentiments were honest and not even particularly damning, even if they conflicted with her coach's assessment minutes earlier of a team beginning to understand a new style. Perhaps a few words were spoken between coach and player, a reminder of how a captain's words carry. But whatever the source, Lloyd has been a consistent voice of calm belief ever since. If she leads, others will follow.
"That's the beauty about leadership, I think, is you get something different with Abby and Pearcie [Rampone] than you do with Becky and Carli," Brian said. "I've always looked up to Becky as a leader on this team, from day one since I've been here. She's a quiet leader. She does everything correctly, on the field and off the field. She leads in that way. And Carli has always been someone, especially me playing in the midfield with her when I first got on the team, she leads by playing on the field. She brings it every single day."
Friday we'll find out where their team goes from here.