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A look at the earliest USA women's World Cup exit ever

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Now to the World Cup. It was tied after 90 minutes. It was tied after extra time. It was tied after the first full round of penalty kicks. And then in sudden death penalty kicks, the United States lost to Sweden in the cruelest way possible. Lina Hurtig's winning goal crossed the line by about a millimeter, after U.S. goalie Alyssa Naeher initially seemed to stop it. It's the earliest the U.S. has ever been eliminated from the World Cup. And to put it into context and to look ahead at this dramatic tournament, soccer writer Sophie Downey is joining us from Sydney, Australia. Hey, Sophie.

SOPHIE DOWNEY: Hiya. Thanks for having me on.

DETROW: I mean, it's hard to know where to start with that match, but probably all the missed penalty kicks on the U.S. side. I mean, what a hard finish for the U.S. squad.

DOWNEY: Yeah, it's really tough. And I think penalty kicks are always the worst, aren't they? They're just so cruel at the end of, you know, 90-plus, 30 minutes of absolutely grueling football. And then for it to come down to that, like, millimeters, as it were, it was a grueling way to go out of the World Cup.

DETROW: I mean, is the U.S. story of this World Cup the two-time defending champions underachieving or is it the rest of the world catching up?

DOWNEY: I think it's a little bit of both, to be honest. I think the rest of the world has caught up, and the rest of the world is finally taking women's football very, very seriously. And that was always going to narrow that gap between what the USA have achieved in years gone by, you know, with the investment that they threw into the game way before anyone else did. So there was always going to be a narrowing. But I do think that probably the USA have also underachieved this tournament just in terms of the players that they have and the experience. I know they have a blend of youth and experience, but, you know, we all know the USA for that winning mentality, and there just didn't quite seem to be that spark this time around.

DETROW: Well, there are been other surprises too. I mean, Germany bombed out of the World Cup as well. Now both countries that have won it multiple times are eliminated. There have been a lot of surprises.

DOWNEY: There have. It's been definitely an unpredictable World Cup. I think it's - you know, I think it goes to show the strength of the game. I think it's probably the best World Cup we've ever had in terms of the competitive side of it - nature of it. I think there's a lot of factors that go into different reasons why different nations are either succeeding or, you know, bombing out. But, yeah, it's a very interesting one to keep an eye on, that's for sure.

DETROW: What's the one thing you saw today in the U.S.-Sweden game that's going to stick in your mind?

DOWNEY: The performance of the goalkeeper Zecira Musovic. But for her, the USA would have gone through. I don't know how she was reaching some of those saves. It was almost like she was seeing the ball slower and bigger than everyone else on the pitch. She was just getting to everything. And I think when you have a performance like that from your goalie, you probably have to go through to the next round because she can't do all that for nothing.

DETROW: As hard as it was to concede that here in the U.S., that was a phenomenal performance today.

DOWNEY: Yeah, it was. It was what we're used to in England of seeing her perform like that. And, you know, she has that ability and it was one of those days where she just could do nothing wrong.

DETROW: But looking at the rest of the tournament, Sweden advances to take on Japan later this week. England is still in the hunt. Spain looked great in its first round match. Which teams are you focusing on as the field winnows to eight and then down to those finals eventually?

DOWNEY: So I think Japan really has surprised a lot of people, not because we didn't know they had good players, but because I think, at this stage in their development of their kind of rebuild or resurgence, none of us really thought they were quite there yet. But they're playing some brilliant stuff. Sweden, obviously, you saw today. You know, they come up against it and they find a way and find a way to get through. And then you can't look past England. I know they're playing tomorrow, but they are the European champions. They absolutely, you know, hit top form against China last time out. And it'll be interesting to see how they get on against Nigeria tomorrow.

DETROW: That is soccer writer Sophie Downey who's in Australia covering the tournament. Thanks so much for joining us.

DOWNEY: Brilliant. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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