Soccer

U.S. women have an old score to settle vs. Sweden. Here’s what to watch for | Opinion

A history of the USWNT in the World Cup

The USWNT has the most World Cup titles in women's history. If they win this year, they'll be the first women's team to win back-to-back World Cups.
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The USWNT has the most World Cup titles in women's history. If they win this year, they'll be the first women's team to win back-to-back World Cups.

A few things we know for sure about the U.S. Women’s World Cup team after two games: Scoring has not been a problem (16 goals by eight different players so far), and there is no better collection of talent in the tournament.

The only question remaining is just how good is this team?

My hunch is really, really good, as in cruise-to-the-trophy good. But we will have a much better idea by Thursday night. It’s hard to judge a team — especially its back line and a new goalkeeper — when it beats Thailand 13-0 and Chile 3-0. Through two games, U.S. players have outshot opponents 65-3 and lead 25-1 on corner kicks.

Consider U.S. coach Jill Ellis started seven backups against Chile and the game would have been more lopsided were it not for the jaw-dropping performance of Chilean goalkeeper Christiane Endler.

The first real test for the Americans will come at 3 p.m. Thursday against Sweden, a veteran team that played the United States to a scoreless tie in the 2015 World Cup and booted the Americans out of the 2016 Rio Olympics. Although both teams are already safely into the knockout round, they will battle for first place in Group F.

The winner of the group faces Spain in the Round of 16 and then could face host France in the quarterfinals and No. 3-ranked England in the semis. The runner-up gets Canada or Netherlands in the Round of 16 and probably a weaker-than-usual German team in the quarters.

But don’t think for a minute that Ellis is plotting to hold back and lose in an effort to get what appears on paper to be an easier path to the final. No, siree! Asking these American women to take their feet off the gas is like asking a French chef to serve canned soup. Not a chance.

“We want to win every game, so I think that’s where we’re at and that’s what we want to do,” Ellis said. “I think if you get too much into manipulating or planning or overthinking something, I just don’t think that that’s a good message.”

Besides, the Americans have a three-year-old score to settle with the Swedes, who knocked them out of the 2016 Rio Olympics in the quarterfinals, the earliest U.S. exit ever from a major tournament. In that game Sweden, under the direction of former U.S. coach Pia Sundhage, packed the back on defense (“parked the bus” in soccer parlance) and advanced on penalty kicks after a 1-1 regulation tie.

Then-U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo said afterward: “We played a bunch of cowards. The best team did not win. I strongly, firmly believe that.

“Sweden dropped back. They didn’t want open play. They didn’t want to pass the ball around. They didn’t want to play great soccer, entertaining soccer... I think it was very cowardly. But they won, they’re moving on. And we’re going home.”

Solo is no longer on the U.S. team but her sharp words surely have not been forgotten in the Sweden locker room.

Ellis said she changed the team’s strategy after that Olympic loss to Sweden, creating more ways to get the attack going. It seems to be working.

Even a parked bus would have a hard time blocking Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, Tobin Heath, Carli Lloyd, Samantha Mewis, Lindsey Horan, Christen Press, Rose Lavelle, and Mallory Pugh. The United States has so many scoring threats that Lloyd, who scored twice against Chile, began the tournament on the bench. Whether Lloyd starts against Sweden remains to be seen.

No matter which 11 starters Ellis chooses, I believe that they will win.

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