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Former U.S. women’s soccer player Lori Lindsey reflects on the mental toll of a pandemic Olympics

Tournament years for U.S. players, and those competing to become them, have layers of complexity beyond games and practices. Lindsey knows from experience.

Crystal Dunn's reaction during the United States' 3-0 loss to Sweden at the start of the Olympics was shared by many fans back home.
Crystal Dunn's reaction during the United States' 3-0 loss to Sweden at the start of the Olympics was shared by many fans back home.Read moreRicardo Mazalan / AP

Lori Lindsey knows what it’s like to be part of the U.S. women’s soccer team at a major tournament. In 2011, she was a reserve on the first American team to reach a World Cup final since the legends of 1999.

So as she watched the current U.S. squad — including some of her old teammates — make its way through this summer, she had a view that most of the rest of us will never be able to share.

Tournament years for U.S. players, and those competing to become them, have layers of complexity beyond games and practices. Life away from the field can be pretty taxing too, especially in an age when fans follow players’ every footstep on social media.

Lindsey has taken in this summer’s journey from afar, literally and figuratively. She has been calling Olympics action from NBC’s studios in Stamford, Conn., thousands of miles away from Tokyo. And even when she called one of the Americans’ pretournament tour games for ESPN, there wasn’t much time for deep conversations.

But she still noticed something below the surface that resonates with her.

“Coming into this tournament, the only thing that I felt concerned about for this team was how long they had been together,” Lindsey said in an Inquirer LIVE conversation this week reflecting on the U.S. falling in the semifinals.

» WATCH: Lori Lindsey’s analysis of the U.S.’ struggles at the Olympics

In most soccer circumstances, that would mean how long they hadn’t been together. Players usually stay with the club teams that pay their salaries until the last practical moment before heading to national team camp.

But with the U.S. women, there’s a long tradition of extended pretournament camps, with a few warmup games along the way — and not just because the U.S. Soccer Federation pays the salaries of the national team’s top players.

Lindsey wondered aloud whether this one might have been a little too extended, given how much pandemic-enforced isolation it entailed.

“I was like, is this environment going to be stale?” she said. “Because in general, when it comes to like World Cups and Olympics, there’s a ton of energy, there’s a ton of excitement, you can go out and enjoy the cities that you’re playing in, you have your families come in to keep things fresh. And it’s always about finding time away from the group, even the team that you love, because it’s just about managing your emotions.”

That’s been impossible in Japan: no sightseeing and no family and friends around, not even in the stands to look up at. The protocols back home before they left were serious, too.

As these Olympics have shown across many sports, the mental toll of the pandemic can impact how athletes perform. It’s true for U.S. soccer players, as famous and elite as they are, just as it is for gymnastics star Simone Biles and tennis star Naomi Osaka.

“I was a little concerned that the U.S. team would almost be together too long and then in isolation as well, and how would that bode for their performances?” Lindsey said. “I think that took a lot out of them emotionally, mentally, and physically going into this tournament, and [they] really haven’t been able to correct, I guess, what that looked like.”

» READ MORE: Fire Vlatko Andonovski? Here’s why U.S. Soccer shouldn’t get rid of him yet.

This is, to be clear, an educated guess on Lindsey’s part — though one she knows carries significance. In addition to being a former player, she’s on U.S. Soccer’s board of directors as a member of the Athlete Council.

Lindsey said she wasn’t “putting the onus on anybody” specifically, and the Americans’ woes on the field had multiple causes.

Those causes were clear to any observer. Manager Vlatko Andonovski made some questionable lineup choices. Sweden threw down an attacking gauntlet in the opening game, and has since proven it’s the class of the 12-team field. And as Megan Rapinoe noted after the semifinal loss to Canada, U.S. players too often simply didn’t play well enough.

“They have not played good soccer by anybody’s standards,” Lindsey said. “By their standards, by fans’ standards, whoever wants to talk about women’s soccer and soccer in general. No one will say this is the best performance we’ve ever seen.”

Lindsey expected the U.S. to deliver a victory in Thursday’s bronze-medal game vs. Australia — and it did, winning by 4-3 — and put a little salve on the sting of missing gold.

But a full accounting of what happened over the last few weeks should be a full accounting. So it should include how the pandemic affected the players’ mental health.

Watch the full Inquirer LIVE interview with Lori Lindsey below.