WINNIPEG, Manitoba — The U.S. picked up a point and kept the lead in Group D with a hard-fought and often frustrating 0-0 tie against high-powered Sweden and former manager Pia Sundhage here on Friday. The two teams neutralized each other for much of the game, which featured a lot of errant passes by both teams and few good scoring chances.
It’s important that the U.S. finishes first in the group, which would mean easier round-of-16 and quarterfinal matchups. Finishing second in the group would mean a likely round-of-16 game against Brazil and a likely quarterfinal against defending champion Japan.
With the group standings of U.S. (four points), Australia (three), Sweden (two) and Nigeria (one), the U.S. will win the group with at least a tie against Nigeria on Tuesday in Vancouver, presuming that either Australia does not beat Sweden or that Sweden does not beat Australia by a scoreline that would make up its current goal-differential deficit to the USA of two. A win secures the top place regardless of what happens in the group's other match.
Here are my three quick thoughts on the game:
The shortest U.S. player saved the game with a leaping header
Meghan Klingenberg stands just 5’2” and often gets teased by her teammates about her height. But in the 79th minute the player known as “Kling” jumped as high as her frame would allow to save a sure goal on the U.S. goal-line, heading Caroline Seger’s screaming shot off the crossbar and out of danger.
The moment had shades of Kristine Lilly’s headed goal-line clearance that saved the U.S. in the 1999 World Cup final. Soccer is a game of moments and inches and positioning, and Klingenberg was in the perfect spot to produce one of the biggest defensive plays the U.S. has seen in a long time.
The U.S. attack was surprisingly disjointed
With Abby Wambach not starting, you figured that the U.S. would play fewer balls in the air and more on the ground. But the Americans struggled to connect, with several players mistiming and mis-hitting their passes, including central midfielder Lauren Holiday (who’s the last person you’d expect to do that very often).
It was easy to wonder why U.S. forwards Sydney Leroux (who certainly appeared to get away with a first-half handball that spared the U.S. a penalty) and Christen Press didn’t check back more often to make themselves available for passes in open space. By not doing so, they forced their teammates to send balls into crowded areas that rarely produced any danger. Perhaps Sweden scouted the recent U.S.-Mexico friendly and realized it would be better not to play such a high defensive line like Mexico did, which had allowed Leroux and Press to get behind them.
Julie Johnston is a monster
It’s crazy to think that just three months ago the 23-year-old Johnston wasn’t even a backup U.S. centerback, but rather the backup to the backup (Whitney Engen at the time). But injuries to Christie Rampone and Engen in March gave Johnston a shot in the Algarve Cup, and there’s no way she’s giving it up now. Johnston was the best U.S. player on the night, confident on the ball, passing with precision and snuffing out Swedish chances left and right. Plus she got forward to threaten on set-pieces.
In one remarkable sequence early in the second half, Johnston stayed up top for an extended scoring opportunity, then raced the length of the field to crush the Swedish counter-attack in her own penalty box. Keep in mind, Johnston didn’t even make the original U.S. roster for last fall’s World Cup qualifying tournament. Now she’s a woman possessed.