LE HAVRE, France — If they weren’t already, the teams left in the World Cup are now on notice.
The U.S. women let everyone know Thursday night that their impressive showings in the first two games weren’t just because they were playing vastly inferior competition. With a definitive 2-0 victory over Sweden that clinched the top of Group F and avenged the most embarrassing loss in team history, the Americans proved that they will be a force to be reckoned with over the next three weeks.
There is no question that any team that wants to lift the trophy July 7 is going to have to go through the U.S. to do it.
And that includes host France.
The U.S. women now face Spain on Monday in the round of 16.
After two lopsided games – including the biggest laugher in World Cup history – it was hard to get a sense of just how good the U.S. women really were. They certainly looked like a team that could win its fourth World Cup title, with endless options on offense and such depth that the notion they could have two teams here and both would contend didn’t seem far-fetched.
But would that hold against stiffer competition? Would the new style coach Jill Ellis implemented following the quarterfinal loss to Sweden at the Rio Olympics – the earliest exit the U.S. has ever made from a major international tournament – be as efficient and productive? Would the defense hold?
Would goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher, who had never before started a major tournament, be a worthy successor to Hope Solo and Briana Scurry?
In one word, yes.
To all of those questions.
Sweden is a veteran and organized team. It does not give away easy goals and it’s proven that it can go toe-to-toe with the Americans, particularly at big events. It had beaten the U.S. the last three times it had faced it at the World Cup or the Olympics, including that 2016 win.
Tobin Heath, left, celebrates with Kelley O'Hara after scoring against Sweden on Thursday. (Photo: Michael Chow, USA TODAY Sports)
This was not lost on the Swedes, who spent much of the last few days trash talking the Americans and trying to get under their skin.
The Americans had refused to bite, but it was clear from the opening whistle that they wanted to send a message — to Sweden, and everyone else. They’ve been the best team in the world for the better part of three decades now, and they do not intend to give up that claim. Not here, anyway.
Three minutes into the game, the U.S. was awarded its first corner kick. Megan Rapinoe served up a ball and Sam Mewis backheeled it past Sweden goalkeeper Hedvig Lindahl and right to Lindsey Horan’s foot. Horan buried the ball into the net for her second goal of the tournament.
It was the fastest goal scored so far in the tournament.
The U.S. dominated possession and had several good chances but couldn’t convert. Until the 50th minute, when Tobin Heath juked Sweden’s Jonna Andersson — and froze two other defenders — and lofted the ball over Lindahl’s head into the upper corner of the net.
Sweden, meanwhile, finally gave Naeher the test she hadn’t gotten in either of the first two games, and she passed it easily. She made several easy saves and, in the 70th minute, punched clear a dangerous shot by Kosovare Asllani.
There were also a couple of other scrums in front of the goal that she navigated cleanly, and she didn’t seem to be unnerved by the Swedish attackers who ran at her when she was trying to send the ball into the midfield.
Most impressive, however, was the overall style the U.S. had. Ellis talks often about connecting passes and allowing plays to build out of the back, and you could actually see that happening. It seems as if they’re playing a master’s class version of soccer while everyone else is still in high school.
There is a lot of the World Cup left, and anything can happen in the win-or-go-home knockout rounds. But if the Americans keep playing like this, everyone else is playing for second.
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