One could mount an argument that the United States’ long-term interests at this here World Cup would have been better served had they thrown their group-stage finale against Sweden yesterday and given themselves an easier path to the final. Let your opponents win Group F and let them deal with the French in the quarterfinals. Take your chances on the easier side of the bracket and try to make it far as possible before you have to go toe-to-toe with the hosts.
That’s an argument Sweden would be sympathetic to, since they rested several starters and coach Peter Gerhardsson said after the game that winning the group wasn’t all that important. Good for them. The USWNT was never going to pass up a chance at revenge on the Swedes out of fear of playing a team ranked below them two rounds from now. Hell, as Crystal Dunn said, “We want to freaking play France.” The Americans have been talking and playing like the best team in the tournament, and they made a point of noting that carrying the strongest possible form into the knockout rounds was more important than bracket shenanigans.
You can ask Thailand about that form, or you can ask Gerhardsson, whose team suffered a comprehensive 2-0 defeat to a USWNT out for revenge for what Sweden did to them at the Olympics. Three years ago in Brazil, Sweden dispatched the USWNT in the quarterfinals, an embarrassing defeat that marked the first time the U.S. has failed to at least make the semifinal of a major tournament. Hope Solo called them “a bunch of cowards” after that game for bunkering down instead of playing the U.S. straight up, and the comment helped end her USWNT career.
Sweden may have exercised some lineup cowardice yesterday, but at least they tried to play the ball forward. It didn’t matter, as Tobin Heath and the rest of the U.S. went hard for all 97 minutes on their way to victory.
It was not a flawless performance for the USWNT, and now that an easy group stage is out of the way, things will get harder immediately. Dunn is being played out of position at left back, and for all the incisive passing she brings to the American attack, she isn’t a natural defender, and Sweden targeted her with a bit of success yesterday. Midfielder Julie Ertz was a surprise scratch yesterday, and Jill Ellis’s side will need her at her best to get through a gauntlet of teams.
The path starts with Spain on Monday. The Spanish are ranked 11th in the world, though they made it out of a tough group and appear to be a program on the rise. The USWNT will obviously be favored, though it won’t be a cakewalk, as evinced by a hard-fought 1-0 U.S. victory in the two teams’ first-ever meeting in January. If they beat Spain, the real fun starts. France probably awaits in the quarterfinals, and while their performances have been uneven, they’re arguably the other best team in the tournament. They will ask questions of the USWNT defense and goalkeeping that no other team will.
An 18-0 group stage romp is tremendous, but it means nothing now. The USWNT seems to have settled on its best XI, and they’ve found ways to consistently create chances and score goals, admittedly against inferior opposition. Will Heath still find the space she needs to embarrass more disciplined defenders? Will Megan Rapinoe’s occasional sloppiness in possession cost her against more prepared teams? Will an attacker finally force the U.S. defense to scramble? Putting Sweden to the sword was a cathartic moment, but the real tournament starts now.