About 30 minutes before Vlatko Andonovski’s biggest game as coach of the women’s national soccer team, he left his players in the locker room so he could pace the well-manicured grass in an empty Yokohama National Stadium, head down, hands clasped behind his back.
It’s a practice he began back home in Kansas City, where long walks around the neighborhood have provided an opportunity to think and reflect. And Andonovski had a lot to think and reflect about because if his team didn’t win its quarterfinal with the Netherlands in the Tokyo Olympics on Friday, he would be headed back to Kansas City earlier than expected.
So the coach, who had been excessively conservative in a group stage that saw the Americans win just once, decided to roll the dice. He sent Christen Press, Alex Morgan, Rose Lavelle and Megan Rapinoe to the bench while Lynn Williams, who wasn’t even on Andonovski’s original Olympic roster, was given a start.
And the gamble worked, with Williams setting up one goal and scoring the other in a 2-2 draw before Press, Morgan, Lavelle and Rapinoe — all sent on as second-half substitutes because the coach didn’t think they could play a full game in the heat and humidity of a Japanese summer — delivered the tie-breaking penalty kicks that sent the Americans to Monday’s semifinal with Canada.
“That was also part of the plan,” Andonovski said.
“When we prepare for a game, we think about lots of things. In a knockout game like this, we’ve got to think about extra time, we’ve got to think about penalty kicks, we’ve got to think about different matchups on the field — even how we want to start the game and how we want to finish. So with all of that, we were very pragmatic in our approach.”
For a coach who had never managed in a world championship, it was shrewd planning that could pay off in a medal. The Americans’ opponent in the semifinal in Kashima, about 70 miles east of Tokyo, is Canada, a team that hasn’t beaten the U.S. in 37 tries dating to March 2001.
The last time they met in the Olympics, in the 2012 semifinals, Morgan scored just seconds before the end of extra time to give the U.S. a 4-3 win. Three days later the U.S. beat Japan to win the tournament.
Andonovski has some more thinking and reflecting to do ahead of Monday. Veteran Carli Lloyd, one of the best clutch players in national team history, didn’t appear happy to be benched early in the second half, forcing her to watch the penalty-kick shootout from afar. He must also decide what to do about Williams, who played well enough to merit another start even if it means sitting Morgan or Press.
And finally the U.S. will have to find a way to stay onside. The team has lost nine goals — including two potential game-winners in the second overtime period Friday — to offside calls in four games, more evidence that the U.S. still hasn’t hit stride, instead getting by on guile, guts and determination.
“This team just never quits,” said Rapinoe, whose penalty kick ended the quarterfinal. “When we’re playing like s— or playing great or playing in the middle, we’re still going to go out there and play as far as we can.”
If history is a guide, it won’t get any easier. Although the U.S. has won four of the six previous Olympic tournaments, six of the team’s 10 semifinals or finals have gone to overtime. And that could mean more big moments for goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher, who came up huge against the Netherlands, stopping a penalty kick in regulation and two more in the shootout.
“We always believe we’re going to find a way to win,” said Naeher, a two-time World Cup champion who is playing in an Olympic tournament for the first time. “I’ve said from the beginning I just want to help my team win a gold medal. I’m proud of what I was able to do to help us get one step closer to that goal.”
The next step, she hopes, will come Monday.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.