A changing of the guard in women’s football has finally arrived after the sport’s most dominant force, the United States, were dumped out of the World Cup by Sweden in a dramatic penalty shoot-out, ensuring the holders and record four-time champions suffered their earliest ever exit from the competition.

Megan Rapinoe, Sophia Smith and Kelley O’Hara all missed from the spot for the United States before Lina Hurtig saw her spot-kick cross the goal-line by scarcely a millimetre as Sweden won one of the greatest World Cup shoot-outs of all time 5-4, but despite US’s misfortune in Melbourne, their Round of 16 exit will mark a seismic moment for the women’s game after a disastrous campaign Down Under.

The slight irony is, their elimination has come despite by far their best performance of this summer’s otherwise drab campaign. Against Olympic silver medallists Sweden, Vlatko Andonovski’s team were dominant but simply could not find a way past Zecira Musovic as the 120 minutes finished goalless. For US, though, the key damage was done earlier in the tournament, where their lacklustre performances saw them fail to win their group and therefore put them on a collision course with the resolute Swedes. And the statistics highlight just how rare this moment is in the history of the game.

Never before had US failed to reach the semi-finals, and had reached the final in five of the eight previous stagings of the tournament. Which raises the question: where did it all go wrong?

Firstly, this has not appeared to be a wholly united team, with six of the starting XI on Sunday undertaking a silent protest and declining to sing their national anthem, while the other five were singing. Throughout the tournament, as you can see in the below video ahead of their midweek match with Portugal, the majority of the US players remained silent during the anthems. They have faced criticism from former players, including Carli Lloyd, the heroine of the 2015 World Cup final, who has called out the team’s mentality.

Previously hailed for their relentless winning mentality and psychological advantages, this was a US team seemingly lacking their ice-cold composure. Historically, the US’s medal-winning sides were considered “fitter, faster, stronger”, with their superior athleticism giving them an edge thanks to their work ethic on the training ground and their advanced facilities and funding. Crucially though, now that so many more teams around the world are training full-time, they no longer have an advantage in that area, and now must rely on football quality, in an era where their rivals are technically and tactically stronger than ever.

In terms of form, the signs had been there too. Last autumn, US suffered three consecutive defeats, losing 2-1 to England at Wembley, 2-0 away to Spain and then 2-1 at home to Germany. Although friendlies, the world’s No 1-ranked side were no longer the feared team they once were. That said, they still arrived in New Zealand for the start of their World Cup campaign off the back of a formidable nine-game winning streak, which had included victories over Brazil, Canada, Japan and the Germans.

After flattering to deceive in their opening win over Vietnam, Andonovski’s side failed to beat Netherlands and Portugal – coming within a whisker of losing to the Portuguese in stoppage time – and then found themselves without midfielder Rose Lavelle against Sweden, who was suspended.

Longer-term, though, this is a squad that has not evolved adequately. Arguably, US took too long to bring through the next generation, and consequently, 14 of this squad were taking part in their first World Cup.

Respecting legends of the game and allowing them to end their careers on their own terms is understandable, but former Ballon d’Or winner Rapinoe, 38 – who will retire at the end of the year when the NWSL season concludes – failed to make an impact Down Under. It felt symbolic when the below penalty kick sailed over the crossbar when Rapinoe had a chance to put her side 4-2 ahead in the shoot-out. Alex Morgan, 34, has also not reproduced her former magic in this tournament. US will fly home with regrets.

The average age of this squad is 28.5, not dissimilar to that of their 2015 and 2019 triumphs, but the difference this time is the lower number of star players in the primes of their careers, with a mixture of the old guard in their 30s and young, talents like Sophia Smith and Trinity Rodman, who are 22 and 21 respectively.

Chelsea manager Emma Hayes, writing for Telegraph Sport in her World Cup column, pointed towards the US’s “dire record” at recent youth tournaments, which have been dominated by Japan and Spain, and which have all-too-often seen US exit at the early stages. Whether this shock early exit will be enough to prompt root and branch reform of US Soccer’s system for developing youngsters will be the question on many people’s lips.