Preview: USWNT Takes on Sweden as World Cup Play Continues

By MC Bousquette
USWNT Beat Writer

After a shaky start against Australia, the United States Women’s National Team has everything to prove.

On Friday night, the US takes on Sweden, likely the strongest side they will face in the group stage. Coming off a weak victory over Australia in which Megan Rapinoe, Christen Press, and Hope Solo essentially saved the night themselves, the US have even more to prove than they did entering the World Cup. And they’ll have to do it in top form against a strong Swedish team.

The Competition:

Sweden has a significant number of experienced, talented, and powerful athletes leading the side. At attack, Lotta Schelin can be absolutely deadly, and will surely challenge the US defense. Nilla Fischer, a central defensive staple, scored against Nigeria despite a spotty performance. Alongside Fischer at defense is Linda Sembrant who was a second-half substitute against Nigeria and also netted Sweden a point. Midfielder Caroline Seger is another usual playmaker for the squad, both creating opportunities and finishing them herself.

Although Sweden boasts a number of very talented players, their showing against Nigeria was not as defensively strong as expected. In contrast to the United States, who improved against Australia as the match progressed, Sweden experienced a second-half collapse, squandering a 2-0 first half lead to conclude with a draw. The midfield and defense were ultimately weak, allowing the quick Nigerian offense to power right through them to goal.

Should this recur, it presents tremendous opportunity for the United States’ offense, who almost specialize in second half campaigns.

Projected Starting Lineup:

Forwards: Christen Press and Sydney Leroux. Monday’s starting strikers, Abby Wambach and Sydney Leroux, struggled at creating chances – Wambach missed several header opportunities that should have been routine and looked slow out of the gate. Leroux had a quiet first half, but succeeded more at penetrating in the second half, although she still didn’t manage a viable opportunity on her own.

When paired with Press on a sequence that ended with a goal, Leroux was a seamless playmaker. It would be unsurprising to see Coach Jill Ellis use Press up top instead of at midfield. the US needs players who can convert chances, and Press did just that when she shifted to the top slot on Monday. This also gives Ellis flexibility; if Press doesn’t do what is needed, she can move back down to midfield as Alex Morgan enters the match. Morgan, who is still building minutes as she returns from injury, is also a viable replacement for Leroux if she looks weak.

Amy Rodriguez is ready to come off the bench whenever Ellis needs her as an experienced offensive leader, and is a viable second-half alternative for whichever striker might be struggling. It would be surprisingly shortsighted for Ellis to start Wambach against Sweden; the US will need to approach the talented Swedish defense with less Wambach-style direct play and more technical, sequenced tactics.

Midfielders: Megan Rapinoe, Carli Lloyd, Lauren Holiday, and Tobin Heath.

Rapinoe will continue to be key for the US squad; her technical ability and visible fire under pressure lifted the United States to victory on Monday. The US has no one else like her on the squad, though to be fair, there is probably no one else like Megan Rapinoe in the world.

The central midfielders can make or break this match. Neither Lloyd nor Holiday is a holding midfielder, which has shown continuously in 2015 as Ellis insists on maintaining the 4-4-2 lineup. The US can only hope that the two do a fine enough job defending to give the back line some relief and succeed more at creating opportunities and finishing chances. They’ve done it before, but not against a squad as talented as Sweden.

Press’ movement to the front line makes way for Heath, who was a demonstrable playmaker in this spring’s friendlies. She is the technically adept connection necessary to move the ball into the final third, and can be a true boon to the US offense at right wing.

Defense: Meghan Klingenberg, Julie Johnston, Becky Sauerbrunn, and Ali Krieger. Yes, the defense had a very rough go of it against Australia, but Ellis is unlikely to move players around in the back line due to what looked like a massive case of the nerves. The only foreseeable switch in the back is starting Christie Rampone, who could serve to calm the defense. Rampone is older, but that hasn’t been visible in her performance or attitude approaching the World Cup. She could also be a second half substitute if the defense has another tough first half. Ellis may also use Morgan Brian in the second half to give some of her starters relief; the team’s youngest member keeps a cool head despite her youth, and is a good match for staying with the opponents’ more aggressive strikers.

Goalkeeper: Whereas Rapinoe and Press won Monday’s match, Hope Solo saved it. The media circus surrounding renewed domestic violence allegations against her seemed, if nothing else, to make Solo more focused on her performance. She is absolutely vital to the United States’ survival.

The Pia Factor

Friday’s faceoff is more complex than just the matchup between two of the strongest sides in Group D; the US are playing against a squad with a very familiar face at the helm. Before she was Sweden’s coach, Pia Sundhage skippered the USWNT from 2008-2012, with Ellis as an assistant coach at her side.

Intentionally or not, Pia has amplified the buzz surrounding the match’s storyline. In an interview with The New York Times on Tuesday, she critiqued several of her former players on record.

For one, she targeted Abby Wambach; “I told [Wambach] ‘If I stayed, you would be a sub. The best sub ever. But a sub.” She also shared that, “Carli Lloyd was a challenge to coach…When she felt that we had faith in her, she could be one of the best players. But if she began to question that faith, she could be one of the worst.”

So far, only one member of the USWNT camp has responded to Pia’s comments. “I plan to respond on the field,” Carli Lloyd informed Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl.

The Bottom Line:

The United States needs to win this matchup in order to try and win the group, especially with a tough Nigeria up ahead. Finishing first would give the US a much easier route through knockout rounds; facing teams that placed second in their groups for at least the first two stanzas.

In order to be successful tomorrow, the USWNT will have to be a very different team. Tobin Heath has faith in the squad to produce despite the opener’s shortfalls; “All those things that you see in the first game, we got out of our system.”

Ellis has given no indication as to her game plan and whether she will finally choose to abandon the relatively ineffective and outdated style of direct play with which she has stubbornly stuck with. She has an array of talented players at her fingertips, yet is somehow still grasping for the the correct balance. She needs to demonstrate on Friday that she has the immediate solutions to the continuous issues plaguing her squad.

The United States faces Sweden with everything to prove. Their form will speak volumes as to whether or not they can actually make a run for the World Cup, or whether US prowess has faded into the past.

The United States takes on Sweden this Friday, June 12, at 8pm EST in Winnipeg (FOX, NBC Universo).

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