WINNIPEG, Manitoba -- The United States sits atop Group D after two rounds of games, but not as far ahead as it might have wished. As an old nemesis so often does, Sweden made life difficult as the two teams played to a 0-0 draw. As a result, the United States will have to wait at least until Saturday's games elsewhere to clinch a spot in the knockout round before its final group game against Nigeria on Tuesday in Vancouver.
Here are three observations from Friday's game.
1. Without Abby Wambach, United States the latest to fall victim to doldrums
All right, the first half wasn't exactly a highlight reel of chances, either, but like Germany and Canada a day earlier, the United States found itself stuck in neutral offensively in the second half and thereby left itself with work to do in its final group game. Those three teams, on many short lists to reach the semifinals, have collectively gone almost 270 consecutive minutes without a goal since Germany's lone goal early in a 1-1 draw against Norway.
It's not entirely fair to point to an uptick in American energy and chances after Wambach came on as evidence she should have been there all along. That Wambach, if it's agreed she isn't going to play 90 minutes seven times, can be a catalyst off the bench was the whole point Sweden coach Pia Sundhage got in some hot water for making, but most assumed that would be the American plan all along.
Still, it also won't go without notice that the United States went scoreless in a World Cup game without its all-time leading scorer on the field for the first hour and change. Critics who accuse the United States of a longstanding policy of confusing lobbing the ball up toward the powerful forward with a plan will make their voices heard in the next few days. Sweden controlled the middle of the field through Caroline Seger, Therese Sjogran and Lisa Dahlkvist, with Lauren Holiday and Carli Lloyd outnumbered, as there wasn't enough connection between the U.S. midfield and starting forwards Sydney Leroux and Christen Press.
In the end, even Wambach couldn't save the day. A 90th-minute penalty appeal as Wambach tangled with a Swedish defender in the box was met only with silence from the referee.
2. United States back line was a bright spot
Most notably, of course, this comes down to Meghan Klingenberg being in the right place on the line to clear a Caroline Seger shot bound for the back of the net off a corner kick in the 77th minute. The smallest player on the field for the United States by a decent margin of inches (or in FIFA speak, centimeters), she was just tall enough to preserve a draw.
But beyond even that set-piece lifeline, the American back line turned in an improved performance over the opener against Australia, even as Sweden had a good deal of the ball (albeit not all that close to Hope Solo's goal for most of that time). No one was more impressive in that game-to-game improvement than Julie Johnston in her second World Cup start. She showed composure on the ball, pushing forward on a number of occasions to try to kick start a stagnant attack.
And on a day when Sweden did a lot of things well, it didn't get much of anything from star striker Lotta Schelin, who was well tracked.
3. Morgan Brian looked miscast out wide
Yes, Morgan Brian has a World Cup start and Alex Morgan still does not. It is a strange world in which we live. With Morgan still on limited minutes and Wambach out of the starting lineup for the first time in a World Cup since 2003, Brian followed her first World Cup appearance in Monday's win against Australia with her first start Friday. As might be expected of such an assignment for someone who was in fifth grade the last time Wambach didn't start in a World Cup game, results were mixed. Brian never looked tentative, but neither did she look entirely comfortable on the right flank in the spot vacated by Press, who slid over to Wambach's place on the top line.
If the United States wanted someone to stay out wide almost exclusively, use her speed and cross the ball, Heather O'Reilly seems as if she would have been a more logical selection (or the United States could have left Press in that role and had Amy Rodriguez on the field from the outset to try to exploit her speed). Presumably that's one of the reasons O'Reilly is on the roster. A dominant college player as much for her playmaking as goal scoring, Brian is more naturally cast in the middle with the whole field available to her.
For all the chatter this week about Jill Ellis and Pia Sundhage, it was Tom Sermanni, the coach who briefly divided their tenures in charge of the United States, who got Brian involved at the senior level. That involvement was going to happen anyway for someone who won back-to-back Hermann Trophy awards at the University of Virginia, but the start she got under Sermanni probably helped accelerate her immersion to the point that she was the choice to start in place of Wambach. She has a brilliantly bright future ahead of her, but this was a tough ask for her first World Cup start.