LE HAVRE, France — It’s women’s soccer’s friendliest rivalry. Or at least it used to be. When the United States and Sweden met in their first Women’s World Cup game ever, at China 1991, there was a lot going on. Mia Hamm, just 19 years old, scored her first World Cup goal. Ingrid Johansson hit one of the greatest strikes from distance in tournament history, and the U.S. held on to win 3-2.
Off the field, the two teams stayed in the same hotel, and the U.S. delegation, which had brought its own chefs and Western food, graciously shared that food with the Swedes when they asked early in the tournament.
“They paid us back,” said then U.S. coach Anson Dorrance, “because right after we beat their bitter rival, the Norwegians, in the final, the Swedes were staying on the same floor we were on at the White Swan Hotel in Guangzhou.”
When the U.S. players got off the elevators that night, Dorrance said, they saw that the Swedish players showed their affection by hanging up their third-place medals on a wall to form the letters U-S-A. Sweden’s star player, Pia Sundhage, strummed her guitar in celebration that night, and years later she’d coach the U.S. to two Olympic gold medals.
But the good vibes between USA and Sweden? Those changed abruptly three years ago.
“There was a real relationship, a positive one,” said Dorrance with a chuckle, “until of course it was blown up by our goalkeeper in the Olympics.” At the 2016 Olympics in Brazil, the Swedes, then coached by Sundhage, eliminated the U.S. in the quarterfinals, the Americans’ earliest exit ever from a major tournament. And after the game U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo infamously called the Swedes “cowards” for parking the bus defensively.
These days there’s no guitar-playing and no food-sharing in a no-longer-quite-so-friendly rivalry. On Thursday, the U.S. and Sweden will meet in the group stage for the fifth straight Women's World Cup (3 p.m. ET, FOX, Telemundo), and once again the stakes are high, with the victor winning Group F. A tie would also give first place to the Americans.
But the last three times these two teams have met in a major tournament, the U.S. hasn’t won. Has Sweden figured out the Americans? Or is the U.S. about to settle a three-year-old score? Whatever happens, it wouldn’t be a Women's World Cup without USA-Sweden.
On Wednesday, U.S. coach Jill Ellis and winger Christen Press took questions from the media ahead of the latest edition of the rivalry. For Press, Sweden feels close to home. She played three years in Sweden and made it all the way to the Champions League final with her club Tyresö in 2013-14. Sweden launched Press’s career with the USWNT.
But that Olympics loss to Sweden in 2016 was excruciating for Press, who failed to convert on the decisive penalty kick.
“Despite the fact that it’s been three years,” she said on Wednesday, “you don’t forget the taste in your mouth when you fail and when you lose in a world championship. And I think there’s a little bit of that that will definitely act as motivation. You always play to win and to never have that feeling again.”
For Ellis, falling to Sweden in 2016 was a watershed moment, as she explained on Wednesday.
“For me, it was an awareness of saying, ‘Hey, we’ve got to be able to break teams down in mulitiple ways,’” Ellis said. “It can’t just be a ball in behind, it can’t just be a set piece, it has to be different ways we can break teams down. I think that’s what this [2019 U.S.] team has is the capacity to play between lines, over lines, around. It’s a multidimensional team.”
If there’s one thing that the Swedish players have shown this week, it’s that they think the U.S. no longer has a giant mental edge over the Swedes. Goalkeeper Hedvig Lindahl said on Wednesday that she has heard the U.S. players discuss playing seven games in this tournament and wasn’t sure they were fully focused on Sweden. But she’s also aware that the game from three years ago still means something to both sides.
“I read something that they said about how the loss in the Olympics really affected them,” Lindahl said. “I don’t think it’s their only goal to put us in our place, but I think they want to show us that they have changed.”
And so, even though both the U.S. and Sweden have qualified for the knockout stage, there will be a fair bit on the line Thursday. The U.S. will finally meet an accomplished opponent in this tournament after rolling through Thailand and Chile. A rivalry, friendly or otherwise, will be renewed. And history will be on everyone’s mind.