USA Finishes Perfect Women's World Cup Group Run; Tough Knockout Road Awaits

The U.S. women's national team scored early and handled nemesis Sweden to finish atop the group, and with that comes the reward of a potentially brutal road to defending its Women's World Cup title.
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After breezing through the first two games of this Women's World Cup against Thailand (13-0) and Chile (3-0), the U.S. women's national team faced a stiffer test in the final group stage match vs. Sweden on Thursday. The game overall was more competitive, albeit sloppy at times, and goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher saw more action, but ultimately the U.S. broke down the Swedes to come away with a 2-0 win in the latest installment of their compelling rivalry.

Now, the round of 16 is set. After winning the group, the U.S. will play Spain on Monday, while Sweden draws a slightly more difficult opponent on the other side of the bracket in Canada. In Group F's other finale, Chile beat Thailand 2-0 when it needed a win by three or more goals–and hit the crossbar on a late penalty with a chance to get it, no less–which means that Nigeria, will advance over the Chileans as a better third-place finisher. For the first time ever, two teams from Africa (Nigeria and Cameroon, which advanced in dramatic fashion at the death vs. New Zealand) will advance to the knockout rounds.

As for the USA, players like Alex Morgan, Carli Lloyd and Kelley O’Hara got a bit banged up in a chippy bout between familiar foes, but they now have four days to rest up and get ready for Spain, which limited the U.S. in a 1-0 defeat in a friendly this past winter. Before they get there, here are three thoughts from the Americans’ group-clinching victory:

Now the fun begins

You might be thinking that you don’t know what to think of this American performance vs. Sweden. It was a solid win and the U.S. did what it came in planning to do, which was win the group–doing so by outscoring opponents 18-0, no less. But Sweden, which knew it was already through to the round of 16, win, lose or draw, largely played a reserve lineup, one that included three new starters along the back line.

Jill Ellis, though, didn’t mess around after making seven starting lineup changes in the last U.S. game against Chile. Morgan, Tobin Heath and Megan Rapinoe were back up top, while O’Hara and Crystal Dunn were restored at fullback. The only player missing from Ellis's preferred XI was Julie Ertz, who sat out as a precaution with a hip injury.

Sweden’s decision to not go full force here was interesting given the history of these teams heading into the match. This was the fifth straight time the U.S. and Sweden had been placed in the same group at the Women's World Cup, and they’d also played each other at two Olympics. There was still a sour taste in the mouth after Sweden knocked the Americans out of the 2016 Rio Olympics, a quarterfinal that was decided on penalty kicks. This week, U.S. players talked about wanting revenge from three years ago, while Swedish players called out their opponent for not having a mental edge on them anymore. For what it’s all worth, the back-and-forth added more intensity to the game, even though both had already sealed progression.

All of that aside, the U.S. handled business and now has its road set up: it must potentially beat the likes of Spain, France, England and Germany in order–the last three ranked fourth, third and second in the world, according to FIFA's most recent world rankings–to retain the trophy.

Horan steps up

It was a big night for Lindsey Horan. Making her second start in her first Women's World Cup, the NWSL’s reigning MVP scored her second goal in this tournament. In the third minute, Horan easily slipped through traffic in the box to finish a Rapinoe corner kick that had been flicked on by the stellar Sam Mewis to give the U.S. a 1-0 lead. It was her third goal in her last six appearances with the national team.

Horan had big shoes to fill Thursday: not only was she taking on Ertz’s role and playing more of a defensive midfielder, she was carrying a yellow card from the last match, and another one before cards reset entering the semifinals would suspend her for a match. Horan, in the meantime, had a clean game, but will still have to be careful against Spain, because the U.S. cannot afford to lose her for a potential quarterfinal against France. Four years ago, Ellis had that exact scenario play out when Rapinoe and Lauren Holiday both served yellow card suspensions in the quarterfinal against China.

Horan is a versatile player: she can score goals, win 50-50 balls, run the midfield, go box-to-box and, really, do whatever any coach asks. When she’s playing for the Portland Thorns in the NWSL, the game goes through her; with the national team, her role is a bit limited given that she’s usually playing alongside Ertz and Rose Lavelle. But against Sweden, Horan’s natural attacking instincts came through, she put her stamp on the game and is showing each match how and why she will be so valuable for the U.S. throughout this competition.


Ertz absence changes midfield dynamic

This was the question everybody was wondering and U.S. Soccer was hoping it wouldn’t have to answer in France. What happens if the versatile and invaluable Ertz cannot play because of an injury or suspension?

Against Sweden, we found out what the plan would be when Ertz didn’t play due to a minor hip injury–one that she says won't prevent her from playing against Spain on Monday.

Not having Ertz against Sweden turned out not to be super impactful. Mewis slid into the starting midfield as she did against Thailand while Becky Sauerbrunn sat out with a mild quadriceps issue (as Ertz shifted into defense), and Horan moved into Ertz’s role while Lavelle roamed. But how would the U.S. handle a longer Ertz absence? Ellis left obvious backup option McCall Zerboni off her final World Cup roster, despite getting consistent national team call-ups since October 2017.

Sweden has a prolific attack with a deep, veteran roster. It decided to be more experimental with its lineup Thursday given it had already advanced, but what happens when the Americans face a more formidable attack, say against France? They will certainly need Ertz in the middle at full strength.