LE HAVRE, France — The U.S. women's national team just got through its easiest group stage ever at a Women’s World Cup–and now begins what on paper looks like the Americans’ hardest knockout stage ever.
The U.S. beat its old nemesis Sweden 2-0 in their Group F finale on Thursday and set up a round-of-16 clash against Spain, thanks to a third-minute set-piece goal by Lindsey Horan and a 50th-minute Swedish own goal that came after a shot by Tobin Heath. But after beating overmatched Thailand and Chile by a combined 16-0 in its first two games, the U.S. didn’t even get a full-strength Sweden team to play.
Swedish coach Peter Gerhardsson decided to make seven changes and even said afterward that “we didn’t think in advance that it was important to end up first or second” in the group—a nod, most likely, to the fact that the first-place team in the group would end up on the harder side of the bracket and be on a course to face host and favorite France in the quarterfinals.
“I think after the game that might be a fair comment,” cracked U.S. coach Jill Ellis when she heard about it.
The U.S. players, by contrast, said not going 100% to win just is “not even in our DNA,” as winger Megan Rapinoe put it. In the end, it only took three minutes for the Americans to show they wouldn’t be doing any sandbagging.
“We’re winners, and we want to win,” said left back Crystal Dunn. “For anyone to think we were going to throw this game to not play France in France in Paris is crazy. But of course they have to go through to that round, and we obviously have to go through to that round.”
Even with the seven changes, Sweden still provided significantly more resistance than the U.S.’s first two opponents, which gave the American defense more opportunities to get some game action. Goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher had to make two saves, and while she was never really troubled, it was good to knock some rust off.
Meanwhile, when Sweden did manage to get forward, it appeared to target Dunn, especially in the first half. Dunn is not a natural fullback, but Ellis has put her in that spot to get her on the field in a position that is extremely attack-minded in the U.S.’s 4-3-3. She still has to defend on occasion, though, and she won a few one-on-one battles on Thursday that had the American Outlaws chanting her name in the stands.
“I think the way we were set up is we were caught a little bit in transition, and the opening was just down my side,” Dunn said. “But at the end of the day, as an outside back do I love this position all the time? Absolutely not. I’m yelling at my midfielders all the time to disallow that person to run in acres of space like that. But at the end of the day, it’s my job to limit opportunities, and that’s what I tried to do tonight.”
It’s not hard to imagine, say, France’s Delphine Cascarino challenging Dunn in a high-speed transition game in a potential quarterfinal against France. By that time, of course, Ellis will hope to have her full compliment of starters available. Defensive midfielder Julie Ertz was a surprise precautionary scratch from the lineup after picking up a hip contusion against Chile. Ertz is probably the U.S.’s most indispensable player, but Horan filled in without much dropoff against a less-than-full-strength Sweden. What’s more, Sam Mewis got another start in the midfield as a result and played well, including unspooling some penetrating diagonal passes.
Ellis also took off forward Alex Morgan after 45 minutes for what Ellis called “a knock” Morgan suffered in the first half. Ertz said she expects to be ready for the Spain game, while Ellis said Morgan’s removal was merely precautionary.
The win against Sweden put some closure on the 2016 Olympics loss to the Swedes, and it also sets up a dramatic upgrade in challenges moving forward for the Americans. After beating Thailand (FIFA ranking: 34), Chile (39) and Sweden (9), the top-ranked U.S. could now potentially face Spain (13), France (4), England (3) and Germany (2) in their next four knockout-round games.
The Spaniards put up a fight when the U.S. beat them 1-0 in a friendly in January, and Sauerbrunn said she learned a lot about Spain in that game.
“Very good passing team, very good at finding different seams, breaking lines,” she said. “They played a little bit with a false nine, and so they weren’t really making runs in behind, but they were kind of playing in front and trying to slip people through. So that’s something that our back line will have to be vigilant about, and I’m sure we’ll watch plenty of film.”
The U.S. defense can feel good for now that it went through an entire Women's World Cup group stage without conceding a goal for the first time ever. But the Americans are also well aware that the degree of difficulty has been low so far, and it’s about to go sky high very soon.