Inspired Swedes shock U.S.
WOLFSBURG, Germany -- Perhaps the first signs of trouble for the U.S. on Wednesday were on the Porschestrasse, the long pedestrian strip in this car-making city.
At the Celona bar, a couple of hours before game time, the sidewalk seating area was packed. And aside from one or two encampments of U.S. fans, it was a sea of Swedish yellow.
In the stadium, those U.S. fans were spread into several pockets of yellow shirts among the crowd of 23,468 that cheered as Sweden took a step toward the world elite with its 2-1 win over the United States.
Sweden had never before won its Women's World Cup group. Nor had the U.S. lost a game in the group stage. Sweden will face Australia in the quarterfinals, while the U.S. must deal with another yellow-shirted team: Brazil.
The Scandinavian country has a proud history in this tournament: third in 1991, second in 2003 (losing in extra time to Germany in the final) and quarterfinalists in the years in between. But with longtime stars such as Hanna Ljungberg and Victoria Svensson retired, the team has gone through a transition.
The team that shocked the U.S. is a mix of players from the glory days, particularly on a veteran backline, and younger but experienced players elsewhere. And it showed signs of life early this year, with a win over the U.S. at the Four Nations Cup, becoming the first team since Norway in 2002 to beat the Americans twice in the same year.
With U.S.-based Caroline Seger out of the lineup with an accumulation of yellow cards, Nilla Fischer came into the midfield and teamed with Lisa Dahlkvist to clamp down in the middle of the field, often forcing the U.S. to play over or around Carli Lloyd and Shannon Boxx. Fischer, who wore the captain's armband, received a huge ovation upon her departure.
"Those two in the middle, the Swedish players, they had a good game," U.S. coach Pia Sundhage said. "Eventually, Carli and Boxxy stepped up. It would've been interesting if we could've kept possession a little bit longer."
Dahlkvist and Fischer also accounted for the goals. Dahlkvist put just enough power on her penalty kick to beat diving U.S. keeper Hope Solo, and Fischer's free kick deflected in off the unfortunate Amy LePeilbet.
"As good as I expected," Swedish coach Thomas Dennerby said of Fischer. "As good as I saw her do in practice. She is a very technical, skillful player. And if you play against the U.S. like that, you're really great."
The goals kept the Swedish fans in full voice. They already had entertaining call-and-response cheers between the two sidelines.
The bad news for Sweden in this game: Dahlkvist had to be helped off the field in the second half, putting no weight on her left leg. She has scored two of Sweden's four goals in the tournament.
"I haven't talked to the medical team yet, but I think that she's going to play the next game," Dennerby said. "Just problems with her muscles."
Sweden has solid if unspectacular players all over the field. The star is Lotta Schelin, who had a breakaway chance well-saved by Solo and drew the penalty kick by running past LePeilbet.
Three starting defenders are in their 30s and have been through the international grind before. The least-experienced, Annica Svensson, won a pivotal encounter with Abby Wambach late in the game.
Dennerby showed faith in his team's bench. All three substitutes tasked with holding the lead were seeing their first action of the tournament.
Sweden has a solid foundation. Its clubs generally fare well in the Champions League, and players such as Schelin have done well with foreign clubs such as Champions League winner Lyon (France).
"This year, I played a lot of international games with Sweden and with Lyon," Schelin said. "That helps the confidence."
Back at the Celona bar, nobody was seen sitting outside, and Wolfsburg already seemed to be asleep by 11:30 p.m. -- surely a side effect of having no buses running past midnight. But a few fans' voices could be heard up and down the Porschestrasse to the Holiday Inn where the Swedish team was staying.
Sari Pajulampi of Gavle, Sweden, was pleased.
"Sweden played very well defensively, and Schelin, she's brilliant," Pajulampi said.