Selection dilemmas for Sundhage as U.S. prepares to face Sweden
U.S. women meet Sweden to determine Group C winner
Winner of Group C will likely avoid Brazil in the next round
Sweden beat the U.S. 2-1 in January's Four Nations Tournament
Only a smattering of the most expensive seats remain unsold, which means there will be another horn-tooting queue of Volkswagens edging through Wolfsburg toward the stadium after work on Wednesday when the U.S. meets Sweden (Wednesday, 2:45 p.m. ET). The game will decide who tops Group C and in all probability (any permutation that begins "Equatorial Guinea must beat Brazil" looks doubtful) that means putting off any meeting with the Brazilians, who dazzled Wolfsburg at the weekend, until the final weekend of the tournament.
Thanks to its superior goal difference the U.S. will be group winner if the game is tied, but with momentum a precious commodity at tournament finals, both Pia Sundhage and Thomas Dennerby will want to maintain their winning records (both sides arrive 2-0-0; both have come through the first two games without conceding a single goal). Neither of Norway and Australia, which play for passage out of Group D in one of Wednesday's earlier kickoffs, will be a pushover, but it would be a psychological boon to win the group and avoid the more daunting tie. After a stumbling start, the USWNT has broken in to a confident swagger.
"You can see we're enjoying the game again," mused Hope Solo, who could have completed Die Welt's crossword puzzle during the U.S.'s 3-0 win over Colombia, her goal was threatened so little. "It's not just that hard-fought, blood-and-guts-glorified game." The team we've seen in Germany has looked more confident and assertive than the one that faltered in the buildup to the tournament -- which makes assessing recent head-to-heads between the U.S. and Sweden for clues less than straightforward. And, just to show how ephemeral these things are, England beat both teams this spring but would have left Germany early if it'd been defeated by high-flying Japan Tuesday.
Still, there are some potentially worthwhile pointers from the three games Sweden and the U.S. have played -- resulting in one win each, and a tie -- in the past 12 months. The Swedes have often looked dangerous down the flanks, even in the 3-0 defeat inflicted by the U.S. in Connecticut just under a year ago. Josefine Oqvist and Therese Sjogran both caused mischief from wide areas as Sweden repeatedly hit the U.S. on the counterattack then and in January this year, when Dennerby's side won 2-1 in the Four Nations Tournament in China.
Though Oqvist has spent most of her time in Germany on the bench, Sweden pulled Colombia this way and that by spreading the ball from touchline to touchline. With Ali Krieger in reputation-gilding form on the right of defense, left back continues to look like the USWNT's Achilles heel (however hard Lauren Cheney, in what could become a career-defining tournament, works on that side of the pitch). Sundhage has stressed again that she intends to utilize her squad -- "We need 21 players to win the game against Sweden" -- so we may see more of Stephanie Cox if Amy LePeilbet struggles. LePeilbet is hardly a liability but she can get caught out of position; trouble if Sweden breaks suddenly from a spell of U.S. pressure, as it did to equalize during last summer's 1-1 draw.
Since the tournament kicked off in Germany, the U.S. has scored five goals (second only to Japan, which has bagged six), while Sweden has managed only two (the fewest of all the teams currently in their group's top two). But the forward lines are not having such a different time as that suggests: neither team is finishing its chances. For Sweden, Jessica Landstrom and Lotta Schelin have missed numerous opportunities, from the easy finish Landstrom skied against Colombia to the shot that Schelin put into the side netting against North Korea. For the U.S., Abby Wambach's usually reliable head has yet to really test a keeper, and Amy Rodriguez has put a hatful of presentable chances off-target.
It could be a busy game for the ball girls, then -- though both coaches have, obviously, insisted that things will fall right for their strikers soon. Only the width of the post kept Wambach off the scoresheet against Colombia, after all. But with four of five U.S. goals (and one of two Swedish strikes) coming from midfield positions, there is still considerable emphasis on the middle of the pitch in this matchup. Especially given that Sjogran told reporters this week that she and her teammates are aware that "Pia has changed [the U.S.'] style; they want to go through the midfield more, so we know how we're supposed to play against them."
This promises, then, to be an intense physical battle; after being eliminated by Saturday's 3-0 defeat, Colombia's Nataly Arias blamed the U.S.'s size and speed. "They're all big, they're all fast," she said, describing a "growing experience" for the World Cup newcomers. Sweden, though, is more than capable of matching the U.S. on those terms. Though Dennerby may struggle to replace the more cerebral influence of central midfielder and Captain Caroline Seger (suspended after picking up two bookings) on his team, he can swap her no-nonsense tackling with Nilla Fischer's even tougher, brick-wall approach.
Sundhage has decisions of her own to make; although Wambach appears to have sat out training as a precaution, in order to play on Wednesday without a sore Achilles tendon, Heather O'Reilly is a "wait and see" case after straining her groin against Colombia. O'Reilly has been in barnstorming form in Germany, but Sundhage has a ready-made replacement in Tobin Heath if necessary (and Megan Rapinoe has played out there, too). Picking two from Carli Lloyd, Shannon Boxx and Lori Lindsey to play in the center is the real poser -- again.
Lindsey's presence helped the U.S. to start with far better tempo against Colombia than it had against North Korea, when Boxx started. As her passing accuracy is better, Lindsey should present the Swedes with fewer chances to break. But since those chances will probably come anyway, from somewhere, Sundhage may consider Boxx's beefier defensive presence something of an insurance policy. Lindsey and Boxx played together in both summer 2010 matches with Sweden, when the U.S. went undefeated, but Lloyd is another player who is making it tough for the coach to sit her on the bench.
On the balance of things, the U.S. goes into its final game as the favorite. Not the massive, overwhelming favorite some have been suggesting -- if Sweden scores an early goal, as it's threatened to do in both its previous matches, and shuts up shop, this could be a very tense affair -- but favorite nonetheless. A commanding performance, that allows a couple more squad players to get some game time (particularly Alex Morgan, who is wasted on the bench and must despair watching Amy Rodriguez given so long to prove her worth), would send the U.S. into the knockout stages with even more of a spring in its step.
Georgina Turner is a freelance sports writer and co-editor of http://www.retrombm.com/.
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