TOKYO — The U.S. women don’t share your concerns.
Lackluster efforts in group play at the Tokyo Olympics have prompted no shortage of questions and criticisms of the World Cup champions. They were held scoreless in two of three games. They had no answer for Sweden’s relentless attack. They looked tentative and unorganized.
They even, much to Hope Solo’s horror, bunkered down against Australia to preserve their second-place finish in Group G.
They also advanced.
“We’re here to compete and win the gold medal. However way we get there, winning is the most important thing,” Crystal Dunn said Thursday. “It’s about executing a game plan, and moving on from one round to another. Whatever tactics and plans that we’re given, our job is to trust and believe and live to fight another day.”
The USWNT could get away with playing less than their best in the group stage. But the knockout rounds begin Friday, and if the Americans don’t sharpen up, they’ll be making an early exit from the Olympics.
The U.S. plays the Netherlands in the quarterfinals. While the Americans beat the Dutch 2-0 to win their second consecutive World Cup in 2019, and by an identical score in November in their first game after the COVID-19 shutdown, this game will likely be much tougher.
Unlike the U.S. women, who have played in every edition of the Olympics and World Cup and have four titles from each of them, the Dutch’s history in major tournaments is … not extensive. The 2019 World Cup was their second. This is their first appearance at the Olympics.
But for a team short on experience, they have quickly become long on swagger. They won the European championship in 2017, and followed that with their runner-up finish at the World Cup two years later.
Their 21 goals – yes, you read that correctly – in the Tokyo Games group stage were the most by any team, and Vivianne Miedema is the top scorer with eight goals.
“We have an understanding of what they like to do as a team and their style of play,” Dunn said. “However, that (game in November) was a friendly. We understand we are in the knockout rounds and everything can be different.
“We can’t get caught up in thinking about, 'Oh, we’ve played them before, this is what they’re going to be like.’ It’s impossible to say in the knockout rounds.”
The USWNT was ruthless during the 2019 World Cup, never trailing for a second of the tournament and conceding all of three goals. But what people don’t remember is this has been the exception, rather than the rule, at major tournaments recently.
They needed a last-gasp goal to get out of the quarterfinals of the 2011 World Cup, then went onto the final. They were 30 seconds from going to penalty kicks before beating Canada in the semifinals of the Olympic tournament in 2012, and then won gold.
And at the 2015 World Cup, they didn’t look particularly impressive until the semifinals.
“I feel like we just have scratched the surface of what we can do in this tournament. I’m excited for this game tomorrow because I know we’re hitting the ground running,” Dunn said. “Maybe it was not our best style of play at all times, maybe we didn’t execute to the best of our abilities at all times, but we did enough.”
That doesn’t mean to say the U.S. women’s anemic performance so far in Tokyo isn’t troubling, or raise questions on whether the window for this golden generation of players – Megan Rapinoe, Carli Lloyd, Becky Sauerbrunn and Kelley O’Hara among them – is closing. It might very well be.
But the tournament isn’t won or lost in the group stage. All that matters is advancing, and the USWNT did that.
The Americans could still win the gold medal or they could crash out Friday in flaming fashion. It’s far too early to say which one it will be.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 2021 Olympics: Is UWNT pretender or contender? We find out Friday