There are many aspects of the Olympics that U.S. women's national team goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher and her teammates are used to by now.
Adhering to strict Covid-19 protocols, spending lots of time alone in their rooms and playing without fans in the stands.
The USA and Sweden took the field at Tokyo Stadium Wednesday with nothing but a small contingent of media and officials in the stadium that seats 50,000. Naeher could give instructions to her teammates, and they were heard all around the stadium.
What was unusual was Naeher found herself quickly under siege.
Before Wednesday's game, she made 16 appearances for the USA in 2020 and 2021 and gave up one goal. There were many games in which she was not called on to make a save. In the first match of 2021, against Colombia, she did not even face a single shot.
On Wednesday, Naeher gave up three goals to Sweden, was called on to make six saves and was at least twice bailed out on last-second clearances by defender Crystal Dunn.
The USA lost to Sweden, 3-0, ending a 44-game unbeaten streak, dating back to a 3-1 loss to France in January 2019, and a 24-game unbeaten streak since head coach Vlatko Andonovski took charge in November 2019.
In one way, Sweden's performance was not a surprise. The one tie before Wednesday was a 1-1 draw with the Swedes in Stockholm three months ago, a match they could have easily won. All three goals Naeher had given up since Andonovski replaced Jill Ellis came against Sweden.
"They did what they're always good at," Naeher said in a media call with U.S. reporters on Thursday. "They overload you on sides, get a lot of numbers forward and obviously they were able to find success last night. Our job going forward is to clean some things out, close some gaps and fine-tune some of those little details so that we can shut down the next attacking team in New Zealand."
In another way, the USA looked in shock, a test to its reputation for mental fortitude. Asked what shape that would take, Naeher, a big New England Patriots fan, responded, "To channel my inner Bill Belichick, we're on to New Zealand."
The USA has only two days to prepare for its next game against New Zealand Saturday night (early morning in the United States) in Saitama. A victory against the Football Ferns, regardless of the result in the final group game against Australia, will likely be sufficient to send the USA through to the quarterfinals as no worse than one of the two third-place teams.
The USA has little to go on about New Zealand, which had its national team shut down at home because of the country's strict Covid protocols and played its first game in 16 months on Wednesday when it lost to Australia, 2-1. Naeher said that should not be a problem.
"Our focus right now is on ourselves," she said. "That's the one thing that we can control is how we come out, how we prepare, individually and as a collective."
Naeher said the absence of fans should not be an obstacle.
"We've played in a lot of empty stadiums without fans," she said. "Obviously, we were fortunate enough back in Hartford to get a send-off with great crowds in Connecticut [for two friendlies against Mexico]. But we need to be able to come together as a group and bring our own energy, whether it's on the field or from the bench. and every part of the team has their role and responsibility individually and as a collective to bring that energy."
Naeher said the history of the team gives her and her teammates confidence that they can get out of the hole they have dug themselves.
"We've all known that adversity was going to come at some point in this tournament," she said. "You just never know when it's going to hit Game 1. Some of the discussions have been that this is not the first time that we have been dealt a blow and dug ourselves into a bit of a hole. Thinking back to 2008, I know that the U.S. lost the first game of the group [2-0 to Norway] and went on to win a gold medal. And I think back in January of 2019 we traveled to France and we lost, 3-1, to France after going unbeaten in 2018. It is certainly a time to hit reset a little bit and unfortunate that, that came in first game of the tournament."
Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire