Among the top five in FIFA's rankings entering each of the previous four World Cups this century, Sweden enters this summer's tournament as a women's soccer nation at a crossroads.
Even after eliminating the United States and winning silver in the 2016 Olympics, Sweden briefly dropped out of the top 10 of the world rankings a year ago and currently stands ninth. It missed out on the semifinals in the 2017 Euros, the first tournament with an expanded field of 16 teams. Under pressure from more populated continental up-and-comers such as England, France, Holland and Spain, as well as emerging global challengers such as Australia and Canada, it heads to France trying to prove a new generation can maintain the team's place among the sport's royalty.
How they got here
Despite a shocking loss against Ukraine, its first loss in qualifying since 2003, Sweden managed to book passage to France with relative ease. Even the controversy of being awarded a forfeit victory when rival Denmark refused to play while protesting pay discrimination within its own federation ultimately had little direct effect on a group Sweden won by five points. In the six games it won on the field in a group that didn't have a traditional minnow, Sweden outscored opponents 19-1.
Pia Sundhage departed as coach after the most recent Euros, but it's not as though current coach Peter Gerhardsson has tried to reinvent the wheel. While not always deployed to quite the degree that left Hope Solo so ticked off in the Olympics, Sweden is an organized team that is comfortable defending and counterattacking. Even in an eye-catching 2-0 win against England last November, it had less than 50 percent possession.
Sweden isn't short on options at forward. But without Lotta Schelin around after the European legend retired with 88 goals, it is short on proven scorers. There is no one like Schelin, Hanna Ljungberg, Victoria Svensson or other great scorers of the past. That makes for inconsistency, as with a team that closed out 2018 by beating England but opened 2019 with a scoreless draw against South Africa. A group including Kosovare Asllani, Stina Blackstenius (who scored the goal that ultimately undid the U.S. in the 2016 Olympics), Fridolina Rolfo and Sofia Jakobsson needs to collectively replace the threat Schelin represented.
Money stat: 6
Sweden's World Cup roster includes six players with at least 100 appearances for the national team, but the entire roster accounts for just 155 international goals. That's 55 fewer goals than Alex Morgan and Carli Lloyd alone for the United States.
Players to watch
Sofia Jakobsson: At times a prolific goal scorer at the club level for Montpellier in France, Jakobsson sat out the most recent Euros because of injury and was missed. Her goal against Australia in 2015 ensured Sweden made it to the knockout rounds. A tall, swift long strider who is comfortable out wide, this is the 29-year-old's best chance for a big international showing.
Hedvig Lindahl: A direction connection to Sweden's second-place finish in the 2003 World Cup, when she was a 20-year-old youngster who didn't see any minutes, Lindahl enters her fifth World Cup as perhaps the most reliable keeper in the world at the moment. Alyssa Naeher might have better distribution, Christiane Endler might be more athletic, Almuth Schult might be a better shot-stopper, but Lindahl manages a game and organizes a defense with the wisdom of years.
Caroline Seger: Approaching 200 caps for Sweden, this is surely Seger's final World Cup. But like Lindahl in goal, the 34-year-old central midfielder remains indispensable because she remains an outstanding player. After a brief stint on the crowded Lyon roster, she has reasserted herself for Rosengard back home in Sweden's Damallsvenskan the past three seasons. She's a physical presence, a playmaker -- and still a goal threat at times.
All eyes will be on the group finale against the United States for obvious reasons. The two have a long history in major tournaments, and that game will likely settle the group. But the opener against Chile could be a tone-setter. Getting the World Cup rookie in its first game is probably a good thing, before the South American side has a chance to grow into the tournament. But four years ago, a 3-3 opening draw against Nigeria revealed Swedish staleness.
"If we play our cards right, in the Olympics no one believed in us and we made it to the final. We may not be the best team, but we can still go a long way." -- Olivia Schough
In a SportExpressen poll, eight of 12 managers in the top division of Sweden's domestic league predicted the national team would fall short of the semifinals. All 12 predicted Sweden would advance from the group.
The composition of the group all but guarantees that Sweden advances, whether or not it plays well. But without a big breakthrough from the under-30 crowd, especially the forwards, Sweden would be at a disadvantage against either Canada or the Netherlands in a round-of-16 game.