U.S. to face its toughest test yet
Amercians can seal top spot vs. Sweden
WOLFSBURG, Germany -- The U.S. women's national team has had things largely its own way so far in this Women's World Cup. Aside from a 25-minute stretch against North Korea, the Americans have controlled the tempo and the scoreboard. But now comes their toughest test yet against a Sweden side that mirrors the U.S. in many ways.
What's on the line
By winning their first two games, both teams already have qualified for the quarterfinals, but the U.S., by virtue of its superior goal difference, can land the top spot in the group with a draw.
But the way the bracket is set up has raised questions over whether the U.S. would be better off finishing second. The runner-up in Group C will take on Brazil in the quarterfinals -- not a cakewalk by any means given that it's reached the final of the past three major tournaments -- but avoid Germany in the semifinals. On the other hand, winning Group C would set up a quarterfinal date with Australia or Norway, then a titanic matchup in the semifinals against Germany.
Each scenario has its challenges, but given the degree to which momentum and confidence can play on a team's psyche, claiming the top spot in the group is preferable.
Style and tactics
Like the U.S., Sweden lines up in a 4-4-2 formation and possesses the kind of athleticism that will allow it to physically compete on even terms with the Americans, especially in midfield. Both sides also are capable of pressing deep into the other team's half to win the ball, then create opportunities in transition.
One difference is that Sweden tends to play more directly than the U.S., and when it does set up shop in the opponent's attacking third, it prefers to attack centrally, with midfielder Caroline Seger slipping through balls into front-runners Lotta Schelin and Jessica Landstrom.
Unfortunately for Sweden, Seger is suspended for the match because of an accumulation of yellow cards. This leaves head coach Thomas Dennerby with the choice of moving a technical player like Therese Sjogran into the middle from her normal position on the left wing or sliding a more physical performer like Nilla Fischer into Seger's spot. Given that Fischer already has been a substitute in both games, the latter approach seems likelier.
Sweden is capable of attacking from the wings as well, and it was Linda Forsberg's cross that helped set up Lisa Dahlqvist's winning goal against North Korea. But the flanks are where the U.S. thrives, with Megan Rapinoe, Lauren Cheney and Heather O'Reilly -- assuming she recovers from a groin injury -- all capable of delivering pinpoint service as well as scoring goals themselves.
Players to watch
For Sweden: Lotta Schelin, Jessica Landstrom and Lisa Dahlqvist
Much has been made of Abby Wambach's struggles in front of goal, but Sweden has a misfiring striker of its own in Schelin. She has had boatloads of chances in this tournament, especially in the opener against Colombia, yet has failed to find the back of the net. She has the physical tools to threaten any back line, however, and if she can get one shot to go in, that could relieve the considerable pressure she's under. Landstrom has had her struggles as well but managed to score against Colombia. And her size and technique combined with that of Schelin make Sweden's front line the toughest the U.S. has faced so far. Dahlqvist will need to assume more of the creative load in midfield given the absence of Seger and is always a threat with her box-to-box running.
For the U.S.: Shannon Boxx, Christie Rampone and Lauren Cheney
Boxx sat out the Colombia match, but given Sweden's size, she'll need to be at her ball-winning best to give the U.S. the upper hand in midfield. She'll also need to curb her instincts to creep forward and thus leave the U.S. susceptible to counterattacks. Rampone may have just turned 36 years old, but her pace is still top-notch, and the U.S. has relied upon that trait to help defuse some dangerous situations. It also will rely on her vast experience to keep Schelin and Landstrom at bay, especially because the latter forward and Rampone are former club teammates. Cheney has more than validated manager Pia Sundhage's decision to put her in the starting lineup, and she's been a force both in midfield and up top.
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What we can expect
Although Sundhage has made it clear that her team is intent on winning the game, she has plenty of decisions to make in terms of her lineup, some that are of the long-term variety. Wambach sat out training on Monday and Tuesday in a bid to rest her ailing right Achilles tendon, and given that she is sitting on a yellow card (another caution against Sweden would see her suspended for the quarterfinals), it's likely she may sit out the match. That could create an opening for Alex Morgan to garner her first start of the tournament. O'Reilly sat out both sessions as well thanks to a groin injury, meaning Megan Rapinoe likely will take her place on the right flank.
Sundhage also indicated that she's intent on giving some of her reserves more minutes. One possible change is inserting Stephanie Cox at left back for Amy LePeilbet, who has struggled mightily with her distribution. That said, LePeilbet's physical style could match up well against Sweden, so it's unclear what Sundhage will do.
Either way, this game will reveal just how beneficial Sundhage's switch to a more possession-based style has been. One benefit of such an approach is that it enables the U.S. to have a more varied attack, and the Americans' patience will no doubt be tested by Sweden's physical ways. In particular, the U.S. will need to find the right balance between short and long passes when Sweden applies defensive pressure high up the field.
The match also will provide an interesting test for the U.S. back line. Although Rampone and Ali Krieger have been rock-solid on the right side of the American defense, the left side with Rachel Buehler and LePeilbet has looked more suspect, and in Schelin and Landstrom, Sweden certainly has the talent to stretch that part of the field.
It was only in January when Sweden defeated the U.S. 2-1 at the Four Nations tournament in China, a result that will no doubt give it self-belief. Given Sundhage's Swedish background, the team has expressed confidence that it understands the system she has introduced and knows how to combat it.
But the U.S. is playing at a higher level than it did back in January. The balance in midfield has improved, and although some questions remain in terms of the forwards' finishing ability, there is a bit more swagger about the U.S. team these days even when compared to the send-off matches back in May and early June.
Which team will win?
Look for the U.S. to get the result that it needs to finish at the top of the group with the two teams playing to a 1-1 draw.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN.com. He is also the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.