The United States has been warned that it no longer has an aura of invincibility ahead of its crucial final group game against Sweden on Wednesday at the Women's World Cup in Wolfsburg, Germany.
After dominating women's soccer for much of the past two decades the USA had to watch while the rest of the world caught up in recent years. The Americans are the reigning Olympic champions, but have lost in the semifinal of the last two World Cups.
Midfielder Therese Sjogran of Sweden insisted the fear factor that opposing teams once felt before taking on the USA has disappeared and Sweden is determined to secure a victory that would give them a significantly easier draw in the quarterfinal.
"The USA is a really good team but they are only human," Sjogran said. "They are a good team but we don't have the fear of them that we had before."
Both teams have already qualified for the final eight by defeating North Korea and Colombia, but the first- place finisher in Group C would receive the likely advantage of avoiding Brazil in the next round, with Norway or Australia the opponent instead.
Brazil, led by Marta, thrashed the USA 4-0 in the semifinal of the 2007 World Cup, a match highlighted by a goalkeeping controversy. Hope Solo was pulled from the starting lineup in favor of Briana Scurry and then launched into a vitriolic post-game rant criticizing then-coach Greg Ryan for the decision.
The global spread of women's soccer has led to far greater depth, as opposed to the early years when only a handful of teams could play to an acceptable international level. Nations such as Sweden, Japan and Mexico have emerged as genuine contenders capable of surprising the leading teams.
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"We know we are capable of beating the USA because we have done it before," said Sweden coach Thomas Dennerby, referring to a clash between the sides in China earlier this year. "Women's football has much more equality these days. We may not be the best team in the world but we feel we can beat anyone on our day."
The USA, coached by a Swede, Pia Sundhage, has been in reasonable form so far but has been frustrated by a spate of missed chances from strikers Abby Wambach and Amy Rodriguez. Wambach, who has scored 118 goals in her international career, has yet to score in the tournament.
"I am sure it is only a matter of time," Sundhage said.
First things first: The USA must take care of business against Sweden. But after England defeated Japan on Tuesday to top Group B, there is a potential scenario whereby a win could mean the USA avoids both Brazil and Germany until the final, depending on other results.
Such a draw would be fortunate in the extreme, although even to get to that point there are three matches, and three potential dangers lying in wait. Life is no longer so easy for the USA.
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