The most famous United States result since the win in the 2015 World Cup final happened in Brazil in the summer of 2016. It was the Summer Olympics, and Sweden turtled up to frustrate the Americans in the quarterfinals, grinding out a 35 percent-possession 1-1 draw before winning on penalties. It’s a bit of a running gag that the United States and Sweden play each other in every tournament. Dating back to the 2011 World Cup, the two teams have played each other in three of the four major tournaments (the 2011 World Cup, 2015 World Cup, and 2016 Olympics), and they are in the same group once again this time around. They’re very different teams, but Sweden’s style has been molded almost as an antithesis for the Americans.
That 2016 Olympics match, and the silver medal they eventually earned, was a sign what was to come for the Swedish national team. After coach Pia Sundhenge left the team following a disappointing quarterfinal exit at the 2017 Euros, new manager Peter Gerhardsson came in and doubled down on a conservative style that serves to put the pressure on other teams to break down the Swedish high line, while dealing with a bevy of quick and talented attackers. The key is playing out from the back, to reduce the chances that opponents will break up riskier long balls and counter into that aforementioned high line.
Once the Swedes do get the ball up the field, it often falls to Linköping playmaker Kosovare Asllani to create magic. The Swedish No. 9 who plays as a No. 10 is an old hand on this team: 126 caps for the country, dating back to 2008. She was not included in the 2011 World Cup roster, but is now a mainstay on the team as its main creative spark and, oftentimes, a primary goalscorer behind striker Stina Blackstenius.
The Swedes’ play is compact, but Asllani is given a very free No. 10 role. Rather than sit back and ping through balls to Blackstenius and the two wingers, Asllani likes to drive at the defense in hopes of opening up pockets of space for a simpler lay-off pass, or to uncork some truly impressive shooting from distance:
The back six (the pivots and the backline) serve to get the ball up to Asllani and stay out of her way. With the high line employed by the Swedes, everyone has to be positionally aware or risk leaving open spaces and breaks on the counter. For the most part, they are up for it, though teams with talent and space can demolish them. Germany opened them up for a 2-0 lead back in April that will serve as an indication for how things can go wrong for Sweden. In that game, Dzsenifer Marozsán was able to play within the lines and ping passes around with ease.
For Sweden to have a chance to make it past the quarterfinals this time around, they will mostly likely have to deal with one of Canada or the Netherlands as well as Germany. Those are three teams with powerful attacks and solid defense (the Netherlands less so, but they do control possession enough to cause Asllani problems), which bodes poorly for Sweden.
Of course, if teams do get past the defense, they still have to contend with a legend in goal. Thirty-six-year-old net minder Hedvig Lindahl has been the rock at the back of the Swedish team for years. She was on the team, though didn’t play, in the 2003 World Cup, where Sweden finished second to Germany. And though Lindahl is not as elite at any one skill as some of the other goalies in the tournament, she might be the most consistently excellent of them all. This is likely her last World Cup (though you wouldn’t put it past her to suit up as a 40-year-old in 2023), and she’ll need to put in another stellar shift if Sweden are to make any noise.
Goalkeepers: Hedvig Lindahl (Unattached), Jennifer Falk (Kopparbergs/Göteborg), Zećira Mušović (Rosengård)
Defenders: Jonna Andersson (Chelsea), Linda Sembrant (Montpellier), Hanna Glas (Paris Saint-Germain), Nilla Fischer (VfL Wolfsburg), Magdalena Eriksson (Chelsea), Amanda Ilestedt (Turbine Potsdam), Nathalie Björn (Rosengård)
Midfielders: Lina Hurtig (Linköping), Kosovare Asllani (Linköping), Julia Roddar (Kopparbergs/Göteborg), Caroline Seger (Rosengård), Anna Anvegård (Växjö DFF), Elin Rubensson (Kopparbergs/Göteborg)
Forwards: Madelen Janogy (Piteå), Sofia Jakobsson (Montpellier), Stina Blackstenius (Linkoping), Julia Zigiotti Olme (Kopparbergs/Göteborg), Fridolina Rolfö (Bayern Munich), Mimmi Larsson (Linköping), Olivia Schough (Djurgårdens IF)
Blågult (The Blue and Yellow)
The Swedes play a 4-2-3-1 with a high line, focused on quickly flipping the ball up to Asllani and the other attackers. Aside from Asllani and Blackstenius, Sweden will look to get Sofia Jakobsson into space behind enemy lines. Jakobsson is not the best goalscorer on her own, but her ability to sprint past almost everyone will get her easy cutback opportunities to set up the more central attackers.
The central midfield will likely feature Caroline Seger and Elin Rubensson, both hardworking players that understand the solidity required of them. You won’t see either slalom up for box-breaking runs often (Seger is more likely to do so, as she’s got a great shot), but they should help move the ball between the opponents’ midfields and defenses. Sweden don’t have the most depth in the tournament, so they should hope that their conservative approach will keep their players healthy, even as they invite pressure.
And then the defense, which will have the toughest job of all. The thing with the dual approach of inviting pressure and playing a high line is that defenders have to be spot-on with their one-on-one tackling. Sweden do have one star defender, Nilla Fischer, who even at age 34 is still the most important member of the backline. She and Lindahl will shepherd the defense around (and when they’re at their peak, it can be a devastating defense; they conceded just two goals in World Cup qualifying), hoping to minimize the spaces for opponents to break into. Elsewhere on the backline, Chelsea fullback Magdalena Eriksson has been in good form recently for club and country, and will provide some wide relief against teams that rightly press the Swedish back four.
June 11, 12 p.m.: Chile vs. Sweden at Roazhon Park
June 16, 9 a.m.: Sweden vs. Thailand at Allianz Riviera
June 20, 3 p.m.: Sweden vs. United States at Stade Océane
All times Eastern