By Nancy Armour |
Now it gets real.
The U.S. women breezed into the knockout rounds without getting anything close to a test from their first two games. There was the 13-0 rout of Thailand in the opener, followed by a 3-0 victory against Chile in which coach Jill Ellis played what is essentially her second string.
The Americans seem formidable, the strongest of any team in the tournament and one that looks as if it could be lifting the trophy again next month. But how good are they really?
They – and everyone else – are finally about to find out. The U.S. plays Sweden in the final Group F game Thursday night in what will be the first accurate read on the Americans’ title chances.
Not only is Sweden one of the perennial powerhouses in women’s soccer – the Swedes were the silver medalists in the 2016 Olympics and have finished third at the World Cup twice – but the rivalry between the two teams has been a little closer than the Americans would like of late.
In the last 10 games between the teams, the Americans are 3-4-3. And one of those losses is perhaps the most galling in the program’s history.
Sweden knocked the United States out of the Rio Olympics in the quarterfinals, the earliest exit the Americans have ever made at a major international tournament.
“It was a hard-fought game and losing in (penalties) was obviously really disappointing,” Crystal Dunn said Tuesday. “Where the team was then and where we are now is night and day.”
It’s true that the teams have played since then, a 1-0 victory in Sweden two years ago. But that doesn’t change the fact that the Swedes know how to play – and beat – the Americans, something not many teams can say with a straight face.
Sweden is a deep, veteran team, and its lineup has changed little in the last few years. It also has a powerful attack, with multiple players who can score.
Kosovare Asllani already has two goals, and five other Swedish players have scored at this World Cup.
“They’re very athletic, very organized,” Megan Rapinoe said last week during an interview with Fox Sports. “Obviously they’re a big team, good on the counter.”
But, at the Rio Olympics, Sweden also became the first established team to pack it in on defense against the Americans. That’s a tactic normally seen from up-and-coming teams that aren’t sophisticated enough yet or don’t have the talent to go toe-to-toe with the Americans.
The tactic actually caused Ellis to change the way the U.S. plays.
“In that game, it made me realize that we have to make sure now, if teams are not going to give us the space, we need to make sure we have players that can create space, that can break lines when there’s no space, that can turn in the pocket,” she said last month. “The type of players that can really change a game when a team is so highly organized defensively.”
The Americans switched to a more attacking formation, and the results have been on ferocious display so far in France. The 13 goals was a single-game record in the World Cup, and the 18 total goals are already more than the U.S. women had at any tournament since 1999.
Again, though, those came against teams that were grossly overmatched.
“Sweden’s been in multiple World Cups, multiple Olympics, lot of professional players in there, lot of experience – so on paper, yes, certainly you think the last group stage game is going to be a challenging game for us against a really good team,” Ellis said after the Americans beat Chile.
“A lot of our focus (so far) has been on ourselves,” Ellis added. “You want to play well. It’s not even scores, you want to play well to have a good feeling.”
But are the Americans as good as they look? Are they a team that has another title run in them?
We’ll soon see.
This article was republished with permission from the original author and 2015 Ronald Reagan Media Award recipient, Nancy Armour, and the original publisher, USA Today. Follow columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.