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U.S. Midfield Struggles Against Stifling Swedish Defense In 0-0 Stalemate

WINNIPEG, Manitoba - This provincial capital appears to be a city of traffic in the summer, more than might be expected of a place its modest size. That it is also a city of road construction doesn't help. Perhaps because of the toll taken over the course of the long winter, roads that were free-flowing one day can be full of orange cones the next.

They seem to have a particular and curious penchant for closing center lanes.

As a visitor, there are times you wish you knew another way to get to where it is you want to go. You wish you had a backup plan. Instead, you sit and stare at the brake lights extending off into the distance ahead of you as you wait.

It doesn't mean you won't get there. It just means it is going to take longer.

The United States is still in first place in Group D after a 0-0 draw against Sweden on Friday. Despite its first scoreless draw ever in the group stage, it still has a direct route to make first place permanent and thus avoid a fate worse than (the group of) death.

The math is easy enough even for sportswriters. Win Tuesday against Nigeria, a team that for all the flair it has shown at times has also allowed five goals in two games, and the United States wins the group, takes a short flight from Vancouver to Edmonton and plays a third-place team in the round of 16, with a second-place team waiting in the quarterfinals.

Stumble against Nigeria and the Americans might have to travel to a place so far east, Moncton, that there isn't even a state south of the border that shares its time zone.

And Brazil would likely be the opponent waiting there.

Finish an improbable third, and, well, let's not even go there. But there might be Germans involved.

That we're having that conversation instead of who the United States might be able to rest in its final group game is because Sweden set up the soccer equivalent of road construction Friday night. And disconcertingly, especially with Abby Wambach out of the starting lineup in a World Cup game for the first time since 2003, the United States again struggled to find a route to victory other than the one for which it is best known.

It didn't have Wambach by choice and Alex Morgan by precaution, until late in both cases. But depth, especially attacking depth, is supposed to be this team's great strength.

Sweden stifled it.

"They're big, strong and they made space very limited for us," U.S. coach Jill Ellis said when asked about Sweden's defensive approach. "Did I expect that? No. I mean, I told the team we could expect a team that sits deeper and looks for transition moments or a team that's going to press us high. So we were prepared for both. I think the message for us at halftime was I felt like we could change the point (of attack), and once we got the ball out onto the weak side then we had to be more productive in what we were doing.

"And certainly our commitment in the box needed to be better and our focus in the box sharper."

Sweden is all of what Ellis described. As it showed in a 3-3 draw against Nigeria to open the group, it is also not particularly fast. But a team that has Lotta Schelin and has scored 13 goals in its first four games in the 2013 Euros can attack with verve. It just chose not to for much of the night Friday under the direction of coach Pia Sundhage, who knew exactly what she was getting into against the team she coached to three major finals.

"We have given up too many goals, to begin with," Sundhage said, noting she wanted her team to stay compact and limit the ability of the American outside backs to get forward. "Whatever happened, we need to keep the ball and find a possession-oriented style. Now, if we'd done even better, I think we would have created more chances. We did not because we needed more people going forward. But at the end of the day, I think defensively we did well and we created a couple of chances. We go forward."

She meant they move forward in the tournament, with a chance to advance on their racket, to borrow a cliché from the sport of Bjorn Borg and Stefan Edberg.

She didn't mean go forward in this game. That was merely a bonus for much of the game, although after the United States escaped a potential penalty kick for a handball that went uncalled against Sydney Leroux in the first half, Sweden would not have been an entirely undeserving winner had American defender Meghan Klingenberg not headed clear a Caroline Seger shot off the line late.

For its part, the United States struggled to create many chances until Wambach came on for the final half hour. In the first game some individual play from Megan Rapinoe and one great sequence between her, Leroux and Christen Press covered some general offensive inconsistency. The latter remained Friday. The former never materialized.

"More movement off the ball, just keep playing quickly," Rapinoe said of the halftime conversation in Friday's game, which echoed that in the opener against Australia. "I think they gave us space in a weird way, and I think we just took too much time on it. I think we need to move it quicker, be more aggressive in our movement, not necessarily going at them every time but just a lot more creative in that movement."

Which of course leads to the inevitable questions about Wambach. She was never going to play 630 minutes on artificial turf at 35 years old. She had to rest at some point, and while doing so against Nigeria with the group in hand makes sense intuitively, the benefit of avoiding back-to-back games may be exponential. Although for her part, Ellis described the move to sit the veteran forward, start Morgan Brian wide right and move Press to Wambach's forward spot in more purely tactical terms.

"I felt like we needed some pace up top and mobility," Ellis said. "Abby is comfortable and confident in any role, whether she is starting or coming off the bench."

Wambach echoed those sentiments after the game and seemed, as someone always willing to speak her mind, unbothered with the decision if unsatisfied with the result.

But would Sweden have been able to sit in to quite the same degree had the Americans had the reliable target waiting to put her head on the ball for the full 90 minutes?

"It would have been different," Sundhage said. "We would have tweaked it a little bit. I wouldn't say it's harder or not, but Abby is a good player. Every time the ball is in the air in the box, you get a little bit (Sundhage mimicked holding her breath). She's the best."

The United States is not alone at the moment. Canada has yet to score a goal in the run of play and sits precariously atop its group with four points. More surprising still, Germany stalled after an early goal in its second group game against Norway and still has work to do after a brilliant Norwegian free kick sent both of those teams away with a point.

Japan won its second game Friday night but hardly took the tournament by storm with a 2-1 score line against Cameroon. France gets its chance to make a statement Saturday.

That the world is getting better means there may be no easy routes to a title.

The United States is very good on the open road, maybe the best in the world.

We're still waiting to see if this team gets the hang of detours.