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LE HAVRE, France — Sweden was supposed to be the squad that would finally bring the high-flying United States women’s national team back down to earth at this World Cup. Instead, the Americans cruised to their third consecutive group stage victory – a first for the most successful program in tournament history – with a surprisingly easy 2-0 win.
Granted, the Swedes made seven lineup changes ahead of the Group F finale, because like the U.S. they had already punched their ticket to the knockout round. Yet the lack of resistance from the team that eliminated the defending World Cup champions from the 2016 Olympics was startling, especially with rugged defensive midfielder Julie Ertz sitting out with a hip ailment and star striker Alex Morgan – who entered the match tied with Australia’s Sam Kerr for the scoring lead at France 2019 – pulled midway through the contest as a precaution after getting kicked in the leg in the first half.
“This was fantastic game for us,” U.S. coach Jill Ellis said afterward. “When you come out of the group stage, a lot of what we talk about is mentality and being healthy and I think we’re in a really good place.”
The performance reinforced the USA’s status as the title favorite. It also left Ellis with a high-quality problem: Who will she start in Monday’s round of 16 encounter against Spain?
Ertz and Morgan are expected to start the match in Reims. Both would’ve gone the distance had this been an elimination match. The fact that it wasn’t was precisely why they were rested. Now, though, it’s all feet on deck. That means at least one of Thursday’s starters will likely move to the bench. And the leading candidate is probably World Cup rookie Samatha Mewis, who has been one of Ellis’ best players so far.
Mewis took Ertz’s usual spot in front of the back line against the Swedes, just as she had in the opener against Thailand when Ertz replaced the injured Becky Sauerbrunn at center back. She assisted on Lindsey Horan’s goal less than three minutes in – the earliest of the competition – and was dominant in the middle of the field the rest of the way.
“She just offers something elevated in that position. She can break lines on the dribble, she break lines on the pass, and she’s got a shot that I’ve been on the end of a few times and she can really get a hold of it,” said Sauerbrunn, who reclaimed her spot for the last two games after returning to fitness. “She just offers a lot of different things so it’s nice to have her in the middle of the field, because you never know how a team is going to defend against her.”
Mewis wasn’t necessarily projected as a starter before the tournament, despite her lights-out form in the lead-up to the World Cup. Now, she’s at the very least given Ellis something to think about.
“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.”
They’re also going to need to keep improving. As good as this game was, there’s still a feeling the U.S. hasn’t hit its ceiling. That’s a scary thought for the 15 other teams that remain in contention for the trophy.
If FIFA’s top-ranked side gets past Spain, that much-talked about quarterfinal against the host nation will follow provided France — which was far from convincing in its last two outings — gets past Brazil.
Ellis and Co. aren’t looking that far ahead. But after dispatching Sweden, one gets the sense they are eager to welcome all comers.
“I think if you’re scared to play a team in the World Cup,” midfielder Rose Lavelle said, “you honestly don’t deserve to win it.”
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