USA women face Sweden in first true test with chance to exorcise Rio ghosts

Three years after Sweden handed the US women their earliest ever exit from a major tournament, the Americans can score revenge while making a World Cup statement

Megan Rapinoe insists that she has moved on from the 2016 Olympics, when Sweden handed the US womens national team their earliest ever exit from a major tournament. Told by a reporter from Expressen that the Swedish players say they have the mental edge due to that history, Rapinoe shrugged off that notion.

It was three years ago I personally wouldnt take a lot of confidence from that nor would I feel bad about it or think were at a disadvantage from it, she said. Weve both grown and evolved over that time.

But then Rapinoe laughed. Maybe I say that because we lost, so I want to put it behind me. Its not something we dont remember we definitely have that in the back of our minds.

Indeed, the Americans may have bulldozed their way through the Womens World Cup in France so far but they havent really been tested yet. While an eye-popping 16-0 aggregate has been a little surprising, the wins over Thailand and Chile were expected. Sweden, however, is another story: anything can happen.

The teams coach, Jill Ellis, admits that losing to Sweden in 2016 was a wake-up call and she has been trying to figure out how to avoid a similar failure ever since.

That was the first time we had seen a team like Sweden a very established, veteran team take an approach to sit low on us and sit in their own half, Ellis said. Usually when you play teams that cant match up with you, they take that approach, but here was a world power in soccer taking that approach. That game made me realize that if teams arent going to give us the space, we need make sure we have players who can create space.

Ellis and the US havent looked the same since that game. While the dramatic firing of Hope Solo for calling the Swedish team cowards overshadowed the tactics on the day, that loss to Sweden may go down as the single most influential game in Elliss tenure.

In a quest to make the Americans an even more potent attacking unit and better equipped to beat an absorb-and-counter opponent Ellis has left no stone unturned. She has given 30 players their first call-ups since the Olympics, and 20 of them have been capped. She has squeezed veterans out of the picture, tinkered endlessly with new formations and has made defending secondary to a brute-force, relentless all-team attacking style.

Whether Elliss turn toward a heavier emphasis on scoring goals has been the right one is up for debate, and an answer may only come on 7 July in the World Cup final. But there is no question that Sweden helped mold the US team into what we have seen in France this month, 13-0 scorelines and all.

And yet, the oddity is this: as much as Sweden present the first true test of the Americans form in this World Cup and may be ultimate benchmark, the smartest option for the US may be to throw their match and let the Swedes win.

Alex
Alex Morgan, left, and Kelley OHara work out during a training session on Wednesday in Touques. Photograph: Peter Powell/EPA

After all, if the Americans were to beat Sweden on Thursday, theyll top Group F and remain on a path to face hosts France most bookies favorite to win the tournament in the quarter-final. If the Americans were to lose, however, their quarter-final match-up would likely be Germany, who havent looked too convincing thus far, especially with star player Dzsenifer Marozsan nursing a toe injury.

It is reminiscent of the England v Belgium group match at the mens World Cup last summer. On paper, neither team wanted to win the game because the winner would have to face Brazil in a tougher path to the final. Belgium won it, beat Brazil in the quarter-finals anyway, and eventually saw England again in the third-place game, which Belgium also won.

You cant overthink this, Ellis says. Deciding to come second or manipulating a score, that can be dangerous. You need your team to be in a really good place. Feeling good about your performance is the best confidence-maker out there.

Indeed, if the Americans wanted to game the system, they probably wouldnt have pummeled Thailand with 13 goals, which was probably about eight more goals than would ever reasonably be necessary. The Americans only seem to have one level they play at, without any margin to scale back.

I struggle to tell my team not to tackle each other in training the day before a game, Ellis says. At this point, its about making sure your focus is on yourself and making sure we play as well as we possibly can in every game.

For all the Americans changes in the last three years, Sweden arent exactly the same team either. The tactician behind the winning absorb-and-counter strategy, Pia Sundhage (who helmed the Americans to Olympic golds in 2008 and 2012), is no longer the coach. The new manager, Peter Gerhardsson, has tried to guide the Swedes toward a style of more possession, but it hasnt always quite come off. While he has brought new blood into the team, many of the same players from three years ago Kosovare Asllani, Caroline Seger, Nilla Fischer and others will be leading the way.

The Swedes are still deadliest on the counter when they use their speed along the flanks, which isnt all that different than the Americans, despite Elliss efforts to make the attack more unpredictable and varied. Similarly, both Sweden and the US are particularly adept at set pieces and the match could be decided there.

Tactically, Thursdays re-match may not play out like the 2016 Olympics did. But mentally, both teams want this win to prove to themselves that they are primed to make it to the final.

Whenever we go on the field, we already expect to win and thats our mentality, Becky Sauerbrunn said. If they think they have a stronger mentality than our group, well put it to the test.

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