Three days on and I still can’t quite believe what I witnessed on Sunday, August 6th at the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup. The USWNT succumbed to a 4-5 loss to Sweden on penalties after being the better team for most of that game. Yet it wasn’t just the fact that they lost on penalties, it was the manner that they lost that will live long in the memory.
After bringing in Emily Sonnett to help Andi Sullivan in midfield, and to also replace the suspended Rose Lavelle, the USWNT pushed Sweden to the brink for 120 minutes. Despite the shots on goal, Zećira Mušović kept the USWNT at bay and when the final whistle blew, signaling the end of extra time and the start of penalties, you felt that Mušović had the upper hand. Mušović had been the busier of the two goalkeepers and seemed to be full of confidence going into penalties but she ended up not making a single save. Instead, the USWNT couldn’t convert their penalties and it left them leaving the competition in the Round of 16 for the first time in their history.
We’re not here to talk about the tactics of both sides before and during this game. We’re hear to talk about the penalty shoot-out itself and how it’ll take a minor miracle for us to witness something like that ever again.
Sweden won the initial coin toss, choosing to kick to the side that most of their fans had gathered but the USWNT won the coin toss to decide who went first. That ended up being them and the first person to step up to the plate was Andi Sullivan.
Sullivan hadn’t been a regular penalty taker for the USWNT but either she volunteered or performed well enough in training for the coaching staff to list her as the first penalty taker in such a high pressure moment. Mušović glanced at her water bottle, which had notes about each USWNT penalty taker and proceeded to try and waste a little more time by seeking to clarify certain things with the referee. That didn’t phase Sullivan who had walked up to the spot with an almost unnerving calm. Sullivan had a quick run up and proceeded to place her penalty into the left corner of the net, beating Mušović who had guessed the right way. Her celebration wasn’t as muted as her walk up though as Sullivan looked to pump up her teammates and the US fans on the other side of the stadium.
Next up was Fridolina Rolfö who was greeted at the spot by a smiling Mušović with the ball in hand. Rolfö, like Sullivan before her, seemed to be at ease despite the pressure and the weight of her country’s hopes on her shoulders. Alyssa Naeher guessed the right way but Rolfö had placed her shot too well for the USWNT goalkeeper to stop.
On we went as Lindsey Horan was next to take a penalty for the USWNT. Horan had not fared well recently with penalties for both club and country, so this was a big moment for her. She took a deep breath before measuring her run up and became the next player to slot her penalty too well for the goalkeeper to get to.
Naeher looked to try and distract the next taker for Sweden, Elin Rubensson but she too, hit her penalty so well. It was all even at this stage as the pressure and the tension reached another level with each penalty taker that walked up to the spot.
Kristie Mewis made sure to not look up at the goalkeeper when she stepped up to take her penalty for the USWNT. Mewis was the first player to take a penalty who had not started the game. In fact, she and Kelley O’Hara had been brought on with a minute left in extra time solely to take a penalty. It proved to be a great choice as Mewis sent Mušović the wrong way and put her penalty into the top corner.
With both teams seemingly incapable of missing a penalty, the climax of this shoot-out began.
Nathalie Björn was next for Sweden and she never looked truly confident in herself as she received the ball from Mušović. That was reflected in her effort which was sent high over the crossbar as Björn allowed her nerves to overtake her technique in a critical moment.
Up stepped up Megan Rapinoe, who surely could not miss. Rapinoe had made 21/22 penalties in her career up until that point and was a sure bet as anyone on the USWNT to make a penalty. It was part of the reason why Vlatko Andonovski had brought her on as a substitute earlier; to take set pieces and if needed, to take a penalty. Not a single person inside that stadium or even watching around the world would’ve expected what happened next.
Like Björn before her, in looking to place her penalty, Rapinoe sent the ball high and over the crossbar. The disbelieving laugh that followed her penalty showed everyone watching how absurd it was when she missed, and missed in that fashion.
The drama wasn’t quite done yet.
Alyssa Naeher, when her country needed her to swing the momentum back in the favour, pulled off a massive save against Rebecka Blomqvist, who despite her seemingly calm demeanour, didn’t hit her penalty with any power. Naeher guessed the right way and didn’t need to stretch out too far to stop the ball.
This was it for the USWNT. After a poor showing during the group stages and then a turnaround somewhat against Sweden, this was the moment they would need to push on and potentially win their third World Cup in a row. All Sophia Smith had to do has convert her penalty, in whatever way she chose. She just had to make it count.
She didn’t. All her technique flew out the window and she sliced through her kick, keeping Sweden’s hopes alive and putting even more tension into the atmosphere. As Simon Hill put in on the FIFA broadcast in an incredulous voice, “This is unbelievable! She put it over the net as well!”
With people still reeling from Smith’s miss, another young player stepped up to try and help her country, Hanna Bennison. At 20 years old, she took it upon herself to try and salvage this game for her country. With a straight run up, she waited for Naeher to move and then proceeded to thump the ball high into the net, celebrating passionately with her teammates.
The third act of this shoot-out began. With everyone looking around, wondering who else could take a penalty as we went into sudden death, Alyssa Naeher picked up the ball and placed it. She became the first goalkeeper to take, and convert a penalty at a World Cup, and she did it with ease.
That swung momentum back into the USWNT’s favour but Magda Eriksson, Sweden’s influential captain was not about to let the USWNT win this game. After spending most of the match defending and keeping the likes of Alex Morgan at bay. Eriksson still had enough left in the tank to place her penalty into the top corner. A top quality penalty from a top quality player.
(You may be thinking, why am I writing all of these penalties out? Why not just pick a few and only use the most impactful ones to narrate this wild sequence of events? I could, I could easily do that but it wouldn’t have the same weight as every one of you reading right now understanding just how this penalty shootout played out. Every player that stepped up added to the narrative, in one way or the other, and as we reach the end of the shoot-out, it wouldn’t land quite the “same punch” if I cut out the build up to this moment. So if you’re done reading, fair enough, but if you like me, still need to recap every moment of this night, keep on reading.)
With everyone now truly close to breaking down due to nerves, we all knew that each penalty was worth its weight in gold. It was sudden death and players that should’ve made their penalties, missed them. Which meant that nothing was a given any more at this point. It was all about who held their nerve best or, in Sweden’s case, who had the luck of the bounce.
The USWNT sent Kelley O’Hara to take the next penalty. O’Hara was not a usual penalty taker for the U.S. and maybe that’s why when she was substituted in with one minute left, many didn’t understand why it was her and not someone else with a little more technique to their game. Unfortunately, those people were right. O’Hara never looked comfortable at any moment during that lead up and she proceeded to clip the post as she failed to convert her penalty.
Then came the moment that truly reflected how crazy this game we call football can be. Lina Hurtig would either score, and thus send Sweden through, or she would miss or Naeher would save her penalty, thus continuing on this penalty shoot-out.
Hurtig seemed to be in good spirits as she went towards the spot, exchanging a few words with Mušović before placing the ball down. Peter Gerhardsson was seen pumping his fists, fully confident that Hurtig would make this crucial penalty. Hurtig ran up, the ball went into the air and Naeher got a strong hand on it. However, she had to quickly scramble backwards as the spin of the ball took it towards goal. Both the lineswoman and the referee looked at their watches, hoping that goal-line technology would tell them if the ball crossed the line or not, but nothing seemed to happen.
Instead, Hurtig, Naeher and everyone watching had to wait as VAR looked to confirm if the ball had crossed the line. Naeher was vehemently arguing that she had gotten to the ball on time while Hurtig believed that she had scored. As time wore on (it was less than 30 seconds but time stretches in a moment like that) both Naeher and Hurtig stood waiting, watching as Stéphanie Frappart was given a verdict by VAR. Frappart blew her whistle but it took her physically telling Hurtig that it was a goal for Sweden to begin celebrating. Hurtig raced off to celebrate, Mušović shook Naeher’s hand who was still looking on, shell-shocked and the rest of the USWNT dropped to their knees in anguish.
I’ve seen penalty kicks end with the ball crashing off the crossbar or the post. I’ve seen goalkeepers make unbelievable saves to end a shoot-out. I’ve seen panenkas and brilliantly placed penalties that ended games as contest. I’ve never seen goal-line technology fail and VAR confirm the conversion of a penalty before, and that was after the penalty had been initially blocked but the trajectory of it took it over the line.
I could fully understand why Alyssa Naeher was still standing there in shock because I couldn’t quite believe what had happened either. Judging by the celebrations of the Swedes, neither could they. It was the whackiest ending to penalty kicks I have ever seen, and probably will ever see.
Whew! If you’re still reading this, thank you because it’s a long read but like I said before, without the context of everything that happened before, that final penalty wouldn’t have been as much of an exclamation point as it was. The utter amazement at each penalty missed, the joy of every penalty made, the air being sucked out of the stadium as everyone waited for VAR to confirm things right at the end; all of it, all of it was so important to the moment and to this game.
Alyssa Naeher’s almost confused yet disbelieving face at the end of it all will live long in the memory. So will the joy on Sweden’s faces when Hurtig’s penalty was confirmed as a goal, and so will the tears of the USWNT players who couldn’t believe how it all ended. That’s the sport. That’s football. It brings the highest of highs and the lowest of lows in mere seconds.
We may never see anything like we saw on Sunday night in Melbourne and though the players themselves will all look to move on quickly from it, it will live long in my memory. A night to remember in Melbourne: a night when the weird and wacky took center stage.