After two breezy wins, the USWNT's World Cup is about to get a whole lot tougher

PARIS — Two first-round games, two lopsided wins against overmatched foes for the United States women’s national team so far at the World Cup. Now, with six points and a spot in knockout stage already secured, things are about to get real for the Americans.

Sweden awaits the defending champions on Thursday in the northern city of Le Havre, with the top spot in Group F on the line. As unstoppable as the favorites looked after beating up on Thailand and Chile by a combined 16-0 scoreline, this match will be far different. It will be played against a peer.

Sweden was the only team the U.S. didn’t beat on the way to a third World Cup title four years ago, thanks to a scoreless draw in the group phase in Canada. At the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, the Swedes knocked the Americans out of the tournament on penalties in the quarterfinals, marking the first time in a generation that the latter didn’t take home the gold medal.

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Thursday’s meeting isn’t do or die. But it will be the first real test of the competition for FIFA’s No. 1-ranked side, and it will paint a much more accurate picture of how good coach Jill Ellis’s team really is heading into the win-or-go-home second stage.

“In terms of getting us prepared,” Ellis said Sunday, “I think it’s a perfect game.”

Unlike the first two opponents here, the Swedes match up well physically with the U.S. They have big-time experience, both individually at the club level and as a unit in major international events. Their roster is stocked with professional players, just like the U.S.

“Sweden is a fantastic team, good transition team, strong, pacy team, good on set-pieces,” Ellis said. “Different demands than what we’ve just experienced.”

Sweden will present the USWNT's biggest challenge yet at the 2019 Women's World Cup. (Getty)
Sweden will present the USWNT's biggest challenge yet at the 2019 Women's World Cup. (Getty)

That Ellis is expected to go back to the full-strength lineup she used in the opener, rather than a combination of the players who have scored 16 times and conceded none, speaks to how seriously she’s taking the challenge.

One Swedish journalist even suggested that Sweden has a psychological advantage given recent results. “We’ve gotten some big wins against them, too,” U.S. defender Becky Sauerbrunn quickly pointed out.

The circumstances surrounding the tilt only add to the intrigue. An argument can be made that going all-out in the first-round finale is unwise for the U.S. By winning the group they would almost certainly end up on the tougher side of the bracket, counterintuitive as the overall idea might seem.

They’d likely face China or Spain in the round of 16. China isn’t the elite adversary it was when the U.S. beat them in that famous 1999 final, but three of the last four meetings between the countries have been decided by a single goal, including a 1-0 win at the same stage in 2015. Spain, a traditional men’s power considered an up-and-comer in the women’s game, narrowly lost to the Americans in January.

And France could await after that. Les Bleues represent the perhaps the biggest obstacle in the USWNT’s quest to repeat, but Ellis made sure to argue they’re not the only one. “There are a lot of really good teams in this tournament,” she said. “We have another group game to navigate, and then beyond that we’ll see what happens.”

Some have even gone as far as to suggest that the U.S. should lose to Sweden deliberately in order to secure an easier path to the final. Ellis shot down that notion in short order.

“I think if you get too much into manipulating or planning or overthinking something, I just don’t think that that’s a good message,” she said. “Deciding to come second – I think that can be dangerous.”

So expect the U.S. to try to crush Sweden, too, even if it doesn’t need to. After what effectively served as two tuneups, the champs are eager for a stiffer test. “They’re an extreme challenge for us and so It’s going to be a good match,” striker Alex Morgan said. “I look forward to that game.”

The entire American camp seems to share the sentiment.

“You gotta be prepared to play everybody to win this thing,” added Ellis. “The draw is what it is, and we navigate whoever’s in front of us.”

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