LE HAVRE, France — The statistics tell the story. Not only has the United States not given up a goal through its first two games at the Women’s World Cup – surrendering just two on-target shots along the way – the shutout streak extends to an astonishing 549 minutes when you add the last five tuneup games the Americans played en route to France 2019.
The tournament favorites haven’t been forced to pick the ball out of their own net since way back on April 4, when all-world Australian striker Sam Kerr beat U.S. goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher toward the end of a 5-3 win.
The Americans have built plenty of confidence on the attacking side during that span. But now, with Sweden awaiting them here Thursday [9 p.m. ET, Fox] with first place in Group F on the line, Jill Ellis’ side figures to finally be tested defensively. And because it’s been so long since they faced a foe close to their own level, it’s nearly impossible to know how they’ll fare.
“Sweden is an excellent transition team and they love to get in behind,” Ellis said at Wednesday’s pre-game news conference. “When you‘re attacking, you’re almost preparing for that moment in terms of positioning and making sure you’re balanced. It comes down to focus. That’s why, again, this is going to be great for us, because we do need to sharpen that.”
There’s another defensive concern for Ellis and Co. Her preferred back four of right back Kelley O’Hara, central defenders Abby Dahlkemper and Becky Sauerbrunn, and left back Crystal Dunn hasn’t played together since the team’s send-off match in New Jersey on May 25, almost four weeks ago.
A slight injury kept Sauerbrunn out of last week’s World Cup opener against Thailand, forcing Ellis to move midfield destroyer Julie Ertz back a line. Sauerbrunn returned for Sunday’s victory against Chile. But in an effort to get all 20 of her field players minutes and save the starters’ legs for the business end of this marathon tournament, the coach rested two of the other three first-choice defenders.
“Of course constant repetition with the same back line is obviously really great,” admitted Dunn, who sat alongside O’Hara. Still, she suggested that the lack of recent reps among the defenders was overblown.
“It’s not about just defending as a back four and a [defensive midfielder],” Dunn said. “It’s more so, ‘are we defending as a unit?’
“We all hold each other accountable, but at the same time the ball in the back of the net doesn’t just come from one person missing a tackle,” she continued. “It comes from breakdowns all over the pitch.”
The emphasis on team defending and team attacking began after Sweden dumped the USWNT out of the 2016 Olympics by sitting deep and limiting the four-time gold medalists’ chances. The Americans have reinvented themselves since, opting to defend closer to their opponents’ goal. The result has been an offensive explosion, but the worry is that the scheme leaves space in their half of the field that savvy foes can exploit.
Both teams have tried to play down the revenge angle, sort of, in the days leading up the game. “Players and coaches are not focused on what was,” Ellis said. “They’re focused on what will be. The past is irrelevant.”
Nonetheless, the Rio Games resurfaced as a talking point on the eve of this match. “Despite the fact that it’s been three years, you don’t forget the taste in your mouth when you fail and when you lose in a world championship,” said U.S. forward Christen Press. “There’s a little bit of that that will definitely act as motivation.”
Swedish goalkeeper Hedvig Lindahl pointed out that both teams have undergone significant personnel changes in the interim. But there’s no getting around the fact that it's the first time since the Olympics they’ll meet in this setting.
“I read something that they said about how the loss in the Olympics really affected them,” Lindahl said. “I don’t think it's their only goal to put us in our place, but I think they want to show us that they have changed.”
After the Chile match, Sauerbrunn was asked how her side was different from the one that took home the title in Canada four years ago.
“If you were to compare us to 2015, I think we were more of a defensive team. The formation we played, the way that we attacked was more of a counterattack,” Sauerbrunn said. “I think you’ve seen these last two games that we’re more of an attacking group now.”
There’s no doubt about that. The question is, can the U.S. successfully defend its crown by going for broke against the other title contenders in the knockout round? Thursday’s contest against Sweden will help provide the answer.
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