It was true when Australia lined up against the United States in the group stage, and it will be true when the teams play for the bronze medal:
Australia’s coach, Tony Gustavsson, a former U.S. assistant coach, might know the Americans as well as (or better than) any coach in the world. And that could be an important asset as the teams battle for the bronze medal.
“Every time you know a lot about an opponent, it helps you,” Gustavsson said.
Gustavsson is no stranger to the U.S. players. He helped the United States win the Olympic gold in 2012 as a member of the staff of the former coach Pia Sundhage, and he later served a long tenure as an assistant under his friend Jill Ellis after she took the head job. Together, they led the team to two World Cup titles.
But when Ellis left the post in 2019, Gustavsson departed, too. After a stint coaching in his native Sweden, he was hired by Australia last September. He felt unlucky to settle for a draw in the teams’ meeting last week, and he still has the inside knowledge — not to mention the scoring of Sam Kerr — to try to do better on Thursday.
“Obviously, this time it was unique that I have been with the team for a number of years, and not just knowing the collective strategy of the team but also the individual tendencies of the players, which kind of helps in the scouting reports,” he said.
That allowed him to spot a tactical shift “from the first minute” the last time the teams met, and to know that the United States might be vulnerable defensively on corner kicks and off long throw-ins.
“It felt like we were in control in a lot of moments of the game, both with and without the ball,” Gustavsson said. “That I like.”
Megan Rapinoe tried earlier this week to diagnose some of the United States’ struggles in Japan, and for her the disappointing performances came down to one thing that was missing.
“Football always needs joy,” she said. “When the game is really played at its best, you have that. And I feel like we haven’t been able to do that: Everything’s just been a little bit of a struggle — just passes off here or there, or whatever it is. I hope we find it. I certainly love playing with a big smile on my face much more than the opposite. And I think everyone does as well.”
If you feel as if you just watched the United States and Australia play in women’s soccer, you’re right. And if you’ve forgotten that game, congratulations.
The first meeting between the United States and Australia — in the group stage — was, well, forgettable. It played out in the third match day of the group stage as a dreary scoreless draw that was mostly the result of a decision by U.S. Coach Vlatko Andonovski. He had gone into the game with a simple plan — do not give up a goal, and definitely do not lose — and succeeded on both fronts.
That setup was not popular with his players, of course. Alex Morgan was among those who name-checked “a tactical decision by Vlatko” in a not-too-subtle criticism of the strategy, and several other players strongly hinted that the decision to lay back and defend went against the team’s attacking ethos in an unforgivable surrender.
Expect a very different approach today. The Olympics has been — let’s say it plainly — a miserable experience for the United States, a tournament that started with a humbling defeat against Sweden and ended, at least in the gold medal sense, with a rare defeat by Canada in the semifinals on Monday. Afterward, Megan Rapinoe spoke of a team that was missing not only its connections on the field but also its “joy.”
Canada and Sweden will play for the gold on Friday. There is nothing the Americans can do to change that, or, frankly, much they can do to complain about it, since they lost to both teams.
At this point, with only one regulation-time win in five games in Japan, the United States will just want desperately to leave the Games with a medal. Bronze is the only option now, and Andonovski might win back some of his players by unleashing them to go after it with everything they have.