Meet Sweden, the longtime USWNT nemesis with one terrifying skill

MELBOURNE, Australia — The 2023 World Cup’s deadliest weapon stands almost motionless, packed around a hopeless goalkeeper, terrifying by its mere presence, waiting to explode.

Its name is Amanda Ilestedt, but also Stina Blackstenius and Nathalie Björn, Magdalena Eriksson and Fridolina Rolfö. It is Sweden, aptly nicknamed Corner Kicks FC, a longtime U.S. women’s national team nemesis and now, here at the Melbourne Rectangular Stadium on Sunday (5 a.m. ET, Fox), the USWNT’s World Cup Round of 16 opponent.

And it is a potential conqueror of the back-to-back champs because it does one thing better than any other team in the world.

Sweden swept through Group G with nine goals, and of the nine, seven stemmed from crosses or corners.

The Swedes are massive, with nine outfield players standing taller than all but two USWNT projected starters. They bludgeoned the U.S. in their last meeting, 3-0 at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, with two headers plus a rebound after a third header struck the post.

They have since refined their aerial dominance even further, scripting positions and deliveries to exploit any given opponent.

"We decide how to do it game-by-game, depending on where the strongest and weakest players are,” fullback Jonna Andersson explained after three of her left-footed corners led to goals in a 5-0 rout of Italy last week. “We focused on the near post [against Italy], and it worked really well. It's very difficult for teams to defend against those kinds of crosses.”

Against the U.S., the crosses could be similar or different; either way, they’ll be no less difficult to repel.

The USWNT, therefore, has been preparing, "analyzing, and trying to counter" Sweden's set piece threat, head coach Vlatko Andonovski said here Saturday. But when asked how he could prepare for Sweden's height, forward Alex Morgan jokingly chimed in: "I grew a couple inches in the last few days."

On a more serious note: “It's always a massive battle — physically, mentally, everything that goes into it,” U.S. captain Lindsey Horan said Thursday. “It's a [Sweden] team that can bring the aerial presence, set pieces, the crossing ability and getting people in the box. I think that's one thing that we absolutely need to match defensively.”

Sweden's Amanda Ilestedt, center, heads the ball to score the opening goal during the Women's World Cup Group G soccer match between the Sweden and Italy in Wellington, New Zealand, Saturday, July 29, 2023. (AP Photo/John Cowpland)
Sweden's Amanda Ilestedt, center, heads the ball to score the opening goal during the Women's World Cup Group G soccer match between the Sweden and Italy in Wellington, New Zealand, Saturday, July 29, 2023. (AP Photo/John Cowpland)

'We got our asses kicked, didn’t we'

It’s a matchup that the USWNT knows freakishly, improbably well.

“It wouldn't be a major tournament if we weren't facing Sweden,” Horan said with a smile.

“Yeah,” forward Alex Morgan said Tuesday with a scoffing laugh, “we always play Sweden. In every major tournament, without a doubt.”

Morgan debuted at the World Cup in 2011, when Sweden beat the U.S. to top their group. She’s now played in seven major international tournaments, and only once have these two familiar foes avoided each other (at the 2012 Olympics).

Among frequent U.S. opponents (15 or more meetings) over the past two decades, Sweden is also the one with which the USWNT has struggled most. The American win percentage in 24 games is 50% — and decreasing. The U.S. is 3W-4D-2L against the Swedes since 2013. Their 2015 World Cup match ended in a 0-0 draw. The U.S. won in 2019, but Sweden inflicted pain at each of the last two Olympics. It ousted the U.S. on penalties in the 2016 quarterfinals, condemning the Americans to their earliest exit at a major tournament ever.

Then came the 2021 game, at the COVID Games, in a hauntingly empty Tokyo Stadium.

“We got our asses kicked, didn’t we?” forward Megan Rapinoe said that night.

The 3-0 ass-kicking snapped a 44-game unbeaten run. It was U.S. coach Vlatko Andonovski’s first loss on the job. And in a way, it kickstarted the USWNT’s decline. The world champions stagnated and stumbled through that tournament, eventually exiting in the semifinals and settling for bronze. Their roster then began to evolve, but many of the same problems are still present today.

Sweden continues to rise above competition

Sweden’s blueprint, meanwhile, has hardly changed since the 2021 ass-kicking. “We’ve been good at set pieces for a long time,” head coach Peter Gerhardsson said here at the World Cup. They tweak formations (4-3-3 or 3-4-3) and add wrinkles and drill various details, but their identity is unflinching.

It powered the Swedes to the top of Group G despite relatively underwhelming overall performances. South Africa nabbed a deserved early-second-half lead in their opener. Italy looked superior for much of the first half on Matchday 2. But Corner Kicks FC rose above both — literally.

Ilestedt, a 5-foot-10 Arsenal center back, nodded in a 90th-minute winner to beat the African champs.

She then surged toward the top of the Golden Boot standings with two nearly identical close-range headers off Andersson corners against Italy.

Sweden’s set-piece setup was as obvious as it was unstoppable. Ilestedt, Blackstenius (a 5-foot-9 Arsenal striker) and Björn (a 5-foot-9 Everton defender) crowd the near half of the goalmouth. Defenders, of course, have to follow them, creating messy roadblocks between the goalkeeper and in-swinging ball.

“By creating so much 'traffic' in this area, it is very difficult for the goalkeeper to take a positive first step and achieve the elevation required to claim the high ball," Anna Signeul, a Swedish former midfielder and coach and member of FIFA’s Technical Study Group, recently explained.

Andersson takes those left-footed in-swingers from the right, and attacking midfielder Kosovare Asllani takes right-footed ones from the left. They aim for the six-yard box, and specifically the head of Ilestedt, who frequently towers over and out-jumps opponents.

(Source: FIFA Training Center)
(Source: FIFA Training Center)

And if a goalkeeper fights through traffic to disrupt her? Rolfö (a 5-foot-10 Barcelona winger) and Eriksson (a 5-foot-8 Bayern Munich defender) will latch onto any mistake.

Their presence could trouble U.S. keeper Alyssa Naeher, whose most recent attempt to claim a floating free kick ended in a complete whiff and perhaps a few stoppage-time heart attacks against Portugal.

The U.S. will likely attempt to bump Ilestedt and win balls at the near post, but “the consistent accuracy in [Andersson’s] deliveries is just so impressive,” Signeul said. “She beats the first defender every time.”

Set pieces account for five of Sweden’s nine goals. Attacks down the right account for another three.

From open play, the Swedes are very asymmetrical. In those first two games — the relevant ones, because they played reserves in the group finale — they entered the attacking third more than twice as often via the right wing or right half-space (85 times) as they did via the left wing or left half-space (42 times).

Eight of their nine goals have also originated on the right half of the field — just like all three of their goals against the U.S. two years ago came from right-sided crosses.

They will not create waves and waves of chances. But the ones they do create will carry unrivaled danger. Sweden’s non-penalty Expected Goals-per-shot average of 0.17 — a measure of chance quality, regardless of quantity — is joint-best at this World Cup through three games.

Its fourth game will be its stiffest test yet. Center backs Julie Ertz and Naomi Girma have been the USWNT’s two best American players.

Unfortunately, they are 5-foot-7 and 5-foot-5.

Projected starting lineups: USWNT vs. Sweden

Andonovski has a 5-foot-9 center back, Alana Cook, in reserve, but hasn’t played her a single minute all tournament.

It seems unlikely that he’ll make wholesale changes, because, as former USWNT forward Christen Press said this week, “Have we seen any tactical adjustments in the last year? Have we seen any different formations tried? Have we seen any adjustments to the way that we’re pressing? We’ve seen the team come out for the past year in the same general shape.”

Rose Lavelle’s yellow-card suspension will force Andonovski to re-insert Savannah DeMelo into the starting 11. Trinity Rodman missed Friday’s training session with an illness, but returned on Saturday; either she or Lynn Williams could start on the right wing. Alyssa Thompson is also a dark-horse candidate to start. But the most likely 11 is a familiar one.

Possible U.S. starting XI: Alyssa Naeher; Crystal Dunn, Naomi Girma, Julie Ertz, Emily Fox; Andi Sullivan, Lindsey Horan, Savannah DeMelo; Sophia Smith, Alex Morgan, Lynn Williams

Possible Sweden starting XI: Zecira Musovic; Magdalena Eriksson, Amanda Ilestedt, Nathalie Björn; Jonna Andersson, Elin Rubensson, Filippa Angeldal, Johanna Kaneryd; Fridolina Rolfö, Kosovare Asllani; Stina Blackstenius