It’s onto the knockout round of the Women’s World Cup for the defending champions, and the US looked convincing enough in a much-hyped grudge match against Sweden.
Now with the stakes raised as teams start dropping like flies, here is a look at the key takeaways from the US women’s national team victory over Sweden to stay perfect through three matches and top Group F.
This wasn’t the reassuring test US fans might’ve hoped for
After the US coasted past Thailand and Chile, Sweden was supposed to finally offer the test that would to an end to questions about the USA’s steel. But the team’s win, while convincing, needs to be qualified a bit.
With Sweden already guaranteed a spot in the round of 16, Sweden manager Peter Gerhardsson was clearly looking past the USA and ahead to the first game of the knockout round. He rotated out seven players who had started in Sweden’s previous match and gave a handful of players their first minutes of the tournament.
“We knew we didn’t have much time between these matches,” he said. “We played tonight, we’ll have the bus trip tomorrow and recuperate, and we play again Monday. That’s the match that is the most important one and that was the priority when I picked my lineup.”
The American attack again looked relatively strong, with their two goals a fair haul for the amount of danger they created in the final third. But defensively the Americans just weren’t tested in the way critics may have hoped – just about all of Sweden’s attempts on goal either missed the frame or went straight to goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher.
It’s not to say the performance wasn’t promising – Naeher looked shaky against Chile in the match’s only real threatening moment, but her decision-making was on point against Sweden. Still, it wasn’t enough to wash away fears that the USWNT can avoid conceding goals against a top team.
More suspect injury reports show the USA’s confidence
First it happened in the opener against Thailand: Becky Sauerbrunn was left out of the starting lineup for a “mild quad issue.” (Note that it wasn’t an injury and US Soccer was clearly choosing not to call it one.) Then against Sweden, Julie Ertz was held out for a mild “hip contusion”. As with Sauerbrunn, her absence was termed “precautionary”.
More than a few reporters in the American press corps have a hunch that Sauebrunn and Ertz, two crucial players, were just rested against opponents the Americans were confident about beating.
Resting players isn’t anything new, but the Americans seemingly have a luxury few other teams in this tournament have: they can rest players whenever they want – as was the case during an almost full lineup rotation against Chile – and still look full strength.
“People should know we rotate our players, we have a strong 23, and we’re always fresh and ready to go,” said Crystal Dunn when asked what other teams should takeaway from the US performance.
The US is too busy winning to worry about plotting
One of the biggest talking points coming into Thursday’s match against Sweden was whether Jill Ellis and co might try to game the system and lose so the Americans could avoid France, the other best team in the tournament so far.
But anyone who has been following the USWNT’s run through the World Cup so far already knew the answer: not a chance. As if a record-setting 13-0 win over Thailand didn’t show the Americans wanted to play at 100%, coach Jill Ellis’s aggressive lineup against Sweden confirmed it.
Rose Lavelle may have put it best after beating Sweden: “I think if you’re scared to play a team in the World Cup, you honestly don’t deserve to win it.”
In the lead-up to the final game of the group stage, Ellis talked about the importance of everyone feeling good. Momentum may be an intangible, subjective thing that only exists in the minds of players, but it’s real – and the Americans have it right now.
Not every player who deserves to start will
The question was a relatively simple one: If everyone is healthy – if Julie Ertz doesn’t have a “hip contusion” – how can Samantha Mewis got on the field as a starter?
“At this point, just having the depth that we need, especially in that midfield with legs, I think that’s important,” Ellis said. “We’re going to need legs.”
In other words: Mewis, who was arguably one of the USA’s best players on Thursday may not start and that’s just how it is. The Americans have considerable depth and – opponents beware – they intend to use it.
To wit: it’s been well-documented that Carli Lloyd isn’t pleased she hasn’t been starting regularly for the Americans either. But that doesn’t figure to change.
Asked last week about why she’s so open about her displeasure, Lloyd said there’s nothing wrong with the USWNT’s starting-caliber players wanting to be on the field.
“I’m just being honest,” Lloyd said. “If I was satisfied with that, I really shouldn’t be here. That’s not who I am as a person and player. I know my ability is there. There’s honestly nothing holding me back except for the coach’s decision.”
Those decisions for Ellis are difficult ones, and it means players who deserve to start won’t.
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