By ANNE M. PETERSON AP Sports Writer
MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — The United States played its best game of this Women’s World Cup and it wasn’t good enough to stop the two-time reigning champions from being eliminated in the round of 16.
The Americans’ bid to win an unprecedented third consecutive title ended Sunday on penalty kicks. Megan Rapinoe, Sophia Smith and Kelly O’Hara missed with kicks from the penalty spot before Lina Hurtig converted to clinch the shootout 5-4 as Sweden knocked the United States out of the World Cup after a scoreless draw in regulation and extra time.
The Americans controlled the shootout until the trio of misses.
It is the earliest exit in tournament history for the United States, four-time winners of the World Cup.
“I mean, this is like a sick joke. For me personally, this is like dark comedy that I missed a penalty,” Rapinoe said as she blinked back tears. “This is the balance to the beautiful side of the game. I think it can be cruel.”
U.S. goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher fruitlessly argued she had saved Hurtig’s attempt, but it was ruled over the line by VAR. The stadium played Abba’s “Dancing Queen” in the stadium as the Swedes celebrated and the U.S. players sobbed.
“We just lost the World Cup by a millimeter. That’s tough,” said Naeher, who successfully converted her own penalty kick. “I am proud of the fight of the team. We knew we hadn’t done our best in the group stage and we wanted a complete team performance and the team came out and played great.”
She praised Sweden goalkeeper Zecira Musovic, who had 11 saves to deny the U.S. a spot in the quarterfinals. The American’s worst previous finish had been third place, three different times.
“We didn’t put anything in the back of the net,” sobbed Julie Ertz after the loss. “The penalties were tough. It’s just emotional because it’s probably my last game ever. It’s just tough. It obviously sucks. Penalties are the worst.”
The loss was somewhat expected based on the Americans’ listless play through three group-stage matches. But they played their best game of this World Cup against Sweden, only to have it decided by penalties.
“I am proud of the women on the field,” U.S. coach Vlatko Andonovski said. “I know we were criticized for the way we played, and for different moments in the group stage. I think we came out today and showed the grit, the resilience, the fight. The bravery showed we did everything we could to win the game. And, unfortunately, soccer can be cruel sometimes.”
It was the fourth time the Americans went to extra time at the World Cup. All three previous matches went to penalties, including the 2011 final won by Japan. The U.S. won on penalties in a 2011 quarterfinal match against Brazil, and in the 1999 final at the Rose Bowl against China.
Sweden knocked the United States out of the 2016 Olympics in the quarterfinals on penalties.
Sweden goes on to the quarterfinals to play Japan, which beat Norway 3-1 on Saturday night.
Sweden has never won a major global tournament, either the World Cup or the Olympics. The closest the team has come is World Cup runner-up in 2003. They placed third in the 1999, 2011 and 2019 editions, and won silver medals in the last two Olympics.
The result ended the international career of Rapinoe, the Golden Boot winner of the 2019 tournament who is retiring after the World Cup. She had taken on a smaller role in her final tournament and was a substitute in the United States’ first and third games of group play.
She went on in extra time against Sweden and in her final game and few minutes of action, she failed to control a ball played in deep, whiffed on a rebound, hit the side of the net with a corner kick and then missed the penalty that would have put the United States on the verge of victory.
“Just devastated. It feels like a bad dream,” captain Alex Morgan said. “The team put everything out there tonight. I feel like we dominated, but it doesn’t matter. We’re going home and it’s the highs and lows of the sport of soccer. So, yeah, it doesn’t feel great.”
The Americans struggled through group play with just four goals in three matches. They were nearly eliminated last Tuesday by first-timers Portugal, but eked out a 0-0 draw to fall to second in their group for just the second time at a World Cup.
The Americans looked far better against Sweden, dominating possession and outshooting the Swedes 5-1 in the first half. Lindsey Horan’s first-half header hit the crossbar and a second-half blast was saved by goalkeeper Musovic, who had six saves in regulation.
Sweden won all three of their group games, including a 5-0 rout of Italy in its final group match. Coach Peter Gerhardsson made nine lineup changes for the match, resting his starters in anticipation of the United States.
“They will come back for sure, they have so much quality on their team,” Sweden midfielder Kosovare Asllani said of the U.S. team. “This defeat will not take them down. I expect them to be ready for the next World Cup.”
It was tense from the opening whistle.
Naeher punched the ball away from a crowded goal on an early Sweden corner kick. Three of the Swedes’ goals against Italy came on set pieces.
Trinity Rodman’s shot from distance in the 18th minute was easily caught by Musovic, who stopped another chance by Rodman in the 27th.
Horan’s header off Andi Sullivan’s corner in the 34th hit the crossbar and skipped over the goal. Horan was on target in the 53rd minute but Musovic pushed it wide. Horan crouched to the field in frustration while the Sweden keeper was swarmed by her teammates.
“I had a really good feeling before the game,” Musovic said. “Once again, I’m extremely proud of the girls. Many people out there didn’t think that (win) was possible.”