KASHIMA, Japan — In three games at the Tokyo Olympic soccer tournament, the United States scored pretty goals and poacher’s goals and, somehow, five offside goals.
On Tuesday the Americans scored no goals, and that, it turned out, was exactly what they needed. A workmanlike 0-0 tie with Australia on a humid, misty night delivered the United States — a medal favorite whose generational dominance was called into question last week — to the tournament’s knockout round, and to a quarterfinal against the Netherlands on Friday in Yokohama.
The Americans’ date against the Netherlands was confirmed around the time the team was set to arrive back at its hotel in Tokyo after grinding out a methodical, professional draw with Australia. The Netherlands has been the highest-scoring team in the tournament: The Dutch beat China, 8-2, on Tuesday to run its three-game goal total to 21.
Tuesday’s result was not a vintage United States performance, or perhaps even a popular one inside the locker room. Three days after his team broke out offensively in a 6-1 victory against New Zealand, United States Coach Vlatko Andonovski yanked back on the reins against Australia.
The United States rolled out a defensive tactical plan from the opening minute and never wavered, arranging what was effectively a fortified wall of defenders and midfielders and daring Australia to try to play balls over the top to its star striker, Sam Kerr. When Australia did, the United States had little trouble collecting the ball, neutralizing the danger and controlling the flow of the game.
While effective as a plan — Kerr, Australia’s most dangerous player, did not have a shot on goal — it was a strategy designed to invite attacks and then repel them, not to mount them at the other end: a plan for a draw, which Andonovski knew would clinch second place in the group, but not necessarily a plan for a victory.
The United States players — savvy and experienced pros from front to back — simply went out and executed it.
“It was a tactical decision by Vlatko for us to shift defensively a little more conservatively, and really allow them to get impatient, play long and give it back to us,” said forward Alex Morgan, who acknowledged the wisdom of the strategy even as she appeared to smirk when Andonovski was asked about it in his postgame news conference.
“Disciplined, professional — what we needed to do,” defender Becky Sauerbrunn called the tactics.
And if frustrating Australia, or at the very least stiff-arming it, was the goal, it worked.
“We didn’t want to get scored on,” Andonovski said matter of factly. “That was one of the plans.”
There were chances: Morgan failed to convert an end-to-end breakaway in the eighth minute, and Australia’s Mary Fowler — a kickoff time substitute for an injured Caitlin Foord — hit the crossbar with a header 10 minutes later.
Morgan even put the ball in the net with a header in the 31st minute, but it was ruled offside — the fifth American goal ruled out for offside in two games — after a lengthy video review.
As the chances dried up in the second half, a sense of resignation replaced any flicker of drama.
“Eventually, I felt like both teams kind of sat in,” Morgan said, “and it became playing a professional game and moving on.”
For a United States team that was humbled in an opening loss to Sweden and then gathered itself and a bit of confidence with six goals (and four offside ones that didn’t count) in a victory against New Zealand on Saturday, a tie — even a frustrating one — against a physical and potentially dangerous Australia team felt like a job well done.
When it ended, Andonovski turned and high-fived his assistants as if he had won. The players did not celebrate. There will be, they hope, other nights for that. For their coach, that would be great. Tuesday was simply about getting a result and moving on.
“Coming into this game we came with a mind-set that the first goal was to win the game, and the second goal was to put in a good professional performance,” Andonovski said. “Obviously we didn’t accomplish the first one but we did accomplish the second, which was very important, because ultimately it put us in the same place.”
The Matildas, as Australia’s team is known, were left to do the waiting: They finished third in the group, and had to wait until three hours later to learn their quarterfinal opponent: Britain’s Team GB.
Team GB won its first-round group with a 1-1 tie against Canada on Tuesday, a result delivered by an 85th-minute goal from a Scot, Caroline Weir.