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Knocked out: Sweden bounces top-ranked U.S. out of the Women's World Cup in penalties

Sweden's forward #08 Lina Hurtig (C) and teammates celebrate their win following a penalty kick shootout over two-time defending champion U.S. at the Women's World Cup. It was the U.S.'s earliest exit from the tournament.
William West
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AFP via Getty Images
Sweden's forward #08 Lina Hurtig (C) and teammates celebrate their win following a penalty kick shootout over two-time defending champion U.S. at the Women's World Cup. It was the U.S.'s earliest exit from the tournament.

It was a cruel exit after a tough tournament for the United States Women's National Team. And it came by the narrowest of margins. An inch. Maybe less.

After 90 minutes of regulation time — and a half-hour of extra time — between the U.S. and Sweden, it came down to a penalty kick shootout and the final shot, by Sweden that was almost stopped by U.S. keeper Alyssa Naeher. The ball barely crossed the line.

And that was it. The four-time champion U.S. is heading home, the team's earliest-ever exit from the Women's World Cup.

USA forward Trinity Rodman created chance after chance as she returned to the starting lineup against Sweden in a round of 16 match at the Women's World Cup on August 06, 2023.
Robert Cianflone / Getty Images
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Getty Images
U.S. forward Trinity Rodman created chance after chance as she returned to the starting lineup against Sweden in a round of 16 match at the Women's World Cup on Sunday.

It was the seventh time these two squads faced each other at the WWC, the most in tournament history, though it was their first matchup in a knockout round. Going in, the U.S. had a record of 4 wins, 1 draw and 1 loss.

On a chilly 52-degree night in Melbourne, Australia, these two played like the heavyweights they are in women's international soccer. Against No. 3 Sweden, the top-ranked U.S. had more energy, precision and discipline than in previous matches at this Women's World Cup.

Both teams had their chances early on

U.S. forward Trinity Rodman navigated through the Sweden defense and threaded a powerful shot in the 18th minute, and another in the 27th minute. Off a U.S. corner kick in the 33rd, captain Lindsey Horan's header skipped off the crossbar. In the first half, U.S. goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher punched away two dangerous Swedish corner kicks.

It was easily the best first half for the U.S. at this tournament, as the Americans dissected Sweden's defense to create one scoring chance after another. But at halftime it was 0-0. Still, this was the U.S. team that had been absent in the first three matches.

The U.S. began the second half how it ended the first — controlling play and crafting offensive opportunities. Horan powered a strike in the 53rd minute that Swedish keeper Zećira Mušović someway, somehow managed to deflect out of the goal.

In the 66th minute, U.S. coach Vlatko Andonovski made his first substitution, replacing Trinity Rodman (who had been sick in the leadup to this game) for the speedy Lynn Williams. Emily Sonnett (who started in place of Rose Lavelle because of her yellow card accumulation) sparkled with her defensive stops and had a shot of her own in the 76th minute. Alex Morgan headed a zinger in the 89th minute that the Swedish keeper managed to swat away.

USA forward Alex Morgan (C) heads the ball next to Sweden's defender Amanda Ilestedt in the 89th minute of their Women's World Cup matchup on August 6, 2023.
William West / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
U.S. forward Alex Morgan (center) heads the ball next to Sweden's defender Amanda Ilestedt in the 89th minute of their Women's World Cup matchup on Sunday.

90 minutes (and an extra 30 minutes) would not be enough

Despite the U.S. dominance during regulation, neither side scored — which forced a half-hour of extra time. Looking for a spark, the U.S. subbed Morgan out of the game in the 99th minute, replacing her with Megan Rapinoe. Both sides had chances in extra time — but they didn't score.

So it led to the most frustrating way to end a soccer game: penalty kicks.

The U.S. had been here before at the Women's World Cup, winning three previous times in a shootout. But rarely has the squad faced a keeper like Sweden's Zećira Mušović, who shined with save after save after save to stop the vaunted U.S. offense.

Penalty kick shootout

The U.S. would kick first: Andi Sullivan calmly struck the ball low and to the left, just out of Mušović's reach. Sweden answered to make it 1-1. U.S. captain Lindsey Horan powered her kick in to make it 2-1. Sweden evened it to 2-2.

And that's when the drama really began. Kristie Mewis subbed into the game in the final minute of extra time, making her Women's World Cup debut. Her first touch came on the penalty shot — which she made.

Sweden's next shot sailed over the crossbar. But then so did the next U.S. kick and then another. U.S. keeper Alyssa Naeher managed a save and then took a penalty shot of her own, keeping the U.S. in it.

Kelly O'Hara, another last minute sub in extra time, saw her kick bounce off the post. It would come down to Lina Hurtig. Her shot — swatted by Naeher, who thought she'd saved it - somehow passed just across the line.

After an agonizing video review to confirm the ball did indeed sneak across the goal line by a whisker, that was it.

The final score was 0-0 (Sweden 5-4 on PKs). Sweden's team celebrated as though it had won the tournament and the U.S. looked stunned.

"I know we were criticized for the way we played, at different moments [in this tournament]," Andonovski, the U.S. coach, said in a Fox Sports post-game interview. "I think we came out today and showed what we're all about. The grit, the resilience, the fight, the bravery. Unfortunately, soccer can be cruel sometimes."

Sweden will take on Japan in the quarterfinals. The U.S., the No. 1 team in the world and two-time defending Women's World Cup champions, heads home.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As NPR's Southern Bureau chief, Russell Lewis covers issues and people of the Southeast for NPR — from Florida to Virginia to Texas, including West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma. His work brings context and dimension to issues ranging from immigration, transportation, and oil and gas drilling for NPR listeners across the nation and around the world.

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