Australia outclassed by United States, but Matildas have something to build on

Australia were simply outclassed by United States in the Olympic bronze medal match. The final score might have been 4-3 to the USWNT, but in truth there was more than one goal between the teams.

But this was history in the making for the Matildas, the first time they had ever got past the quarterfinals of the Olympics or the World Cup. A first-ever semifinal appearance. And a first-ever bronze medal match.

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It's an important stepping stone on the road to the 2023 Women's World Cup, when Australia will host and far more expectation will rest on their shoulders.

At the 2019 Women's World Cup, the Matildas experienced a defensive domino-effect that arguably crippled their campaign. Flash forward to the Tokyo Olympics, and the same thing happened against United States -- though new head coach Tony Gustavsson tried to mitigate those losses by changing formations and using players in different, more balanced ways.

The Matildas' lack of defensive depth was already visible by the fact that both Steph Catley and Ellie Carpenter had played almost every minute for Australia, and it came sharply into focus when Carpenter was suspended for the bronze medal match after receiving a red card in the semifinal against Sweden.

In response, Gustavsson gave Clare Polkinghorne the start in the right centre-back position usually occupied by Carpenter, while also bringing Kennedy to the left and Catley further in-field to anchor the back three. It was clear that the players were not comfortable with this rapid transition from their usual back-three balance, as both Kennedy and Polkinghorne struggled to contain the speed and skill offered by USA's faster wingers, Megan Rapinoe and Christen Press. Indeed, Catley was switched back to the left side and Kennedy back through the middle after just 20 minutes.

While they looked more comfortable in this set-up, USA regularly exploited Australia's fatigue and lack of pace in the back-line, stretching the players through wide runs and dangerous crosses into the box. Kennedy in particular made a number of individual errors leading to goals, raising questions about her lack of time spent at centre-back during her club season with Tottenham Hotspur.

However, not all hope is lost: we saw a glimpse of the future just after the hour when 19-year-old full-back Courtney Nevin was given her Matildas debut to shore up Australia's defence. Goalkeeper Teagan Micah, 23, had yet another impressive game, making a number of crucial saves -- including an acrobatic tip over the crossbar in the early stages -- to keep Australia competitive; the end to a campaign that has surely made Micah the first-choice glovewoman.

And then there's Sam Kerr, who briefly made it 1-1 while at the same time become her country's all-time leading goal scorer with 48, surpassing Lisa De Vanna's tally of 47.

At the age of 27, there is still a lot more for Kerr to achieve. Thoughts, then, turn to the ultimate goal: the 2023 Women's World Cup. This tournament has been a crucial learning opportunity, not just for the players but also for Gustavsson and his coaching staff. They have recognised what they are capable of and also the areas that they need to improve.

If Australia are to go even further than this historic run to the bronze medal match when hosting the World Cup on home soil, improving the depth of their defence must be their priority.

United States rediscover their 'joy'

Just as the Matildas have been forging their identity over the course of the Tokyo Olympics, the US women's national team had, in the eyes of many, been sliding in the opposite direction.

Their 3-0 loss to Sweden in the opening game of Group G seemed to shellshock the World Cup holders, ending a 44-game unbeaten run and giving them a kind of memory loss that sapped away all the swagger and style that had come to define them over recent years.

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Despite the USWNT being stacked with familiar faces, almost all of whom won the 2019 Women's World Cup, there was nothing familiar about the way they were playing at this Olympic Games. The high-energy press, the incisive passes, the clinical finishing, the one-two combinations were nowhere to be seen. Even Rapinoe admitted that her side didn't seem to have the kind of chemistry that such a playing history and squad familiarity should generate.

The overall feeling heading into the bronze medal match against Australia, then, was a dark cloud of pessimism. USA had won one game in regular time -- the 6-1 demolition of New Zealand in the group-stage -- and had just scraped a win over Netherlands on penalties in the quarterfinals.

Their 1-0 loss to Canada in the semifinal felt like a final straw: a team that hadn't beaten them in a competitive match for almost two decades qualified for the gold medal match that the International Olympic Committee had scheduled for 11 a.m. local time (10 p.m. ET) deliberately for US TV audiences. And the USA wouldn't even be there. As a result, the game has now been rescheduled for 9 p.m. local, 8 a.m. ET, in keeping with every other game at the tournament in both the women's and men's competition.

There was a question about when, if at all, this star-studded team would "wake up" and remember who they were. Unfortunately for Australia, that moment arrived with the opening whistle of the bronze medal match.

For the first time all tournament, the USWNT played with the same kind of energy and confidence that they have become known for, particularly in the first half. Their intense pressing forced Australia into multiple errors, their direct passing tore their opponents' midfield apart, and their off-the-ball runs sent their defenders spinning.

One player in particular seemed to epitomise the new-found joy that coloured United States' performance: Rapinoe. Her first-half brace was characteristically her: stylish, confident, unfussed. Poetically, her first goal was an Olimpico -- a curled corner kick that flew straight over Teagan Micah's gloves and into the net without being touched by anyone else.

Her second came four minutes after Kerr had equalised -- a fizzing first-time volley that she measured perfectly across her body after a poor clearance from Kennedy. USA went into half-time 3-1 up thanks, too, to a left-footed strike by the legendary Carli Lloyd, who will end her career with yet another medal in her cabinet.

Lloyd added USWNT's fourth in the 51st minute, and while Caitlin Foord quickly made it 4-2 it wasn't until the 90th minute that Emily Gielnik scored the Matildas third from distance. Four minutes of added time failed to produce any real opportunity to send the game into extra time.

It was the kind of performance that, more than any other in this Olympic campaign, USA goalkeeper Adrianna Franch spoke about in the prematch press conference: joy. "Win, lose, or tie: we're lucky to be here," Franch said. "Of course, you've got to play with joy. There's gonna be ups and downs, there's gonna be rollercoasters of emotions, especially in a big tournament, different types of pressure, different types of expectations. [But] when you play with joy, all of that goes away. I think if we do that, there's some brilliance that we'll be able to see."

A swansong for the pioneers

The women's football tournament at the Tokyo Olympics has been memorable for a number of reasons: the pandemic-enforced empty stadiums, the energy-sapping climate, the fairy-tale runs, the record-breaking efforts of individual players.

For a number of participating nations, this tournament also marks a transition moment: a changing of the guard from one generation to the next. Following Brazil's loss in the quarterfinals, 43-year-old midfielder Formiga announced her retirement from international football: the only footballer ever to play in seven consecutive World Cups, and who has played in every Olympic tournament since the women's football tournament began.

There are a number of ageing players expected to follow suit: Sweden captain Caroline Seger, Canada skipper Christine Sinclair, Great Britain's Jill Scott and Steph Houghton. It's the same for both Australia and USA: Laura Brock, Polkinghorne and Aivi Luik for the Matildas, as well as Carli Lloyd, Rapinoe, Becky Sauerbrunn and Kelley O'Hara for USA.

These are players who started their international careers at a time when the women's game was still a novelty with minimal media coverage, begrudging federation investment, major club apathy and barely-liveable wages. Despite it all, though, their love for the game, and for the community that has slowly grown within and around it, had kept them going; it kept them fighting for improved conditions and an improved sport for the generations of players who were to follow in their footsteps.

And they did. The women's football tournament at the Tokyo Olympics has been, like the 2019 Women's World Cup before it, one of the most popular and most-watched women's football campaigns in history. In Australia, the Matildas' historic run has been televised on free-to-air in millions of homes across the country. Social media, too, has been awash with old and new fans posting photos of themselves wearing green and gold in the streets, kicking shiny new footballs around their backyards, sewing the Matildas' jersey numbers into their COVID-19 masks; all of them part of the flourishing online community who woke up at odd hours across the world to be part of these moments together.

This is what the game's pioneers have built; this is their legacy as they move into the next stage of their lives. So while the final whistle of the bronze medal match may have drawn the curtain across the careers of many, it also opened the door to the future careers of millions who watched them give their all in this unforgettable Tokyo Olympic campaign. That, more than records or medals, will forever be their most important contribution to the sport.

Only one thing is left to be decided on Friday -- will Sweden or Canada be crowned gold medal winners?