U.S. comes up short in Group C
WOLFSBURG, Germany -- The U.S. entered its group finale against Sweden with plenty of swagger. The Americans left licking their wounds.
The Swedes defeated the U.S. 2-1 to claim the top spot in Group C, leaving the Americans to finish in second place and setting up a quarterfinal showdown for the U.S. with Group D winner Brazil.
Sweden scored first-half goals from a Lisa Dahlkvist penalty and Nilla Fischer's deflected free kick. The U.S. halved the deficit with a header -- or, more accurately, a shoulder -- from Abby Wambach midway through the second half. But it wasn't enough to bring the Americans all the way back.
Yet even worse than the result was the blueprint on how to beat the U.S., which was sent to the remaining teams in this World Cup. If a side applies physical pressure in the midfield, tests the left side of the U.S. defense and keeps things relatively tight in the back, chances are it'll defeat the Americans.
The U.S. began the match brightly enough, with Lauren Cheney testing Swedish keeper Hedvig Lindahl, but the Swedes soon gained the upper hand. A Lindahl clearance was headed by Carli Lloyd right into the path of Swedish forward Lotta Schelin, but Hope Solo delivered an outstanding foot save to keep the score level.
Sweden kept up the pressure and took the lead in the 16th minute. The ball popped free to Schelin only for her to be dragged down by U.S. defender Amy LePeilbet. LePeilbet could count herself lucky that she only received a yellow card since she was the last defender. Solo's attempt to distract Dahlkvist proved futile, as the midfielder roofed the ensuing penalty to the U.S. keeper's right.
The Americans nearly pulled a goal back in 32nd minute when LePeilbet sprung Amy Rodriguez on a clear breakaway, but the U.S. striker could only look on in disappointment as her attempted chip hit the top of the crossbar and bounced away.
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Sweden resumed its control of the midfield, but owed its second goal more to pure luck. U.S. defender Rachel Buehler hauled down Therese Sjogran 25 yards from goal, and Fischer's free kick deflected off LePeilbet. All Solo could do was watch as the ball settled into the U.S. net.
From there, Sweden relied on its physical play to disrupt the U.S. attack, with Fischer, Dahlkvist and Sjogran all doing plenty to put the Americans off their rhythm. U.S. manager Pia Sundhage tried to revive her team's attack in the second half, bringing on Alex Morgan for the disappointing Rodriguez. The substitute did plenty to make Sweden's backline uncomfortable, winning several corners with her hustle, and it was from one such effort that the U.S. got within one. The U.S. corner was swung in by Cheney and Wambach was able to redirect the ball into the goal with the back of her shoulder.
Sundhage says U.S. will make final
Moments after watching the U.S. fall to Sweden 2-1, a result that condemned the Americans to a quarterfinal matchup with powerhouse Brazil, manager Pia Sundhage had a message for her team: We're going to make the final.
That's right. The normally conservative Swede -- who afterwards wouldn't even be drawn into a comment about the team's quarterfinal opponents -- said that the U.S. will be one of the teams that takes the field in Frankfurt on July 17.
So what would compel Sundhage to give Brazil some instant bulletin board fodder? Did someone slip some "punsch" into her water bottle? On the contrary, the Swede insisted there was logic behind her unusual approach. "I really want us to embrace that pressure," said Sundhage. "I think we'll get stronger and it's inspiring to play against a good team like that Brazil. So that's the plan, to motivate them to talk about the final even though we have two games [before then]. It's a little bit different from what I usually say but that's what it takes when we take a different road."
Different, indeed. The loss was the first the U.S. has ever endured in group play, and it was also the first time that the U.S. hasn't claimed the stop spot in its group at a World Cup. And now instead of an easier matchup against Australia, the U.S. will face the team that dumped it out in the semifinals of the last World Cup. Granted, the Americans got their revenge by beating out Brazil for the gold medal at the Beijing Olympics, but it's a quarterfinal pairing that seems premature to say the least.
Yet none of the players seemed daunted by Sundhage's comments. "It's a really cool challenge to face Brazil, and then maybe England or France," said striker Abby Wambach. "Then obviously putting Germany into the final, some people might call that a fairytale ending."
Yet Sundhage is under no illusions that her side's play will need to improve in order for that ending to come to pass. Once again, the finishing wasn't good enough and the U.S. manager admitted that rather than get the ball consistently to the wings, the U.S. spent too much time playing in the center of the park, which resulted in a "battle in the middle," as Sundhage put it. Of course, this isn't the first time the U.S. has made things difficult for itself. After all, this is a team that had to go to a home-and-away playoff against Italy just to qualify.
"When we qualified it was a little bit bumpy" Sundhage said. "[Now] it's a little bit bumpy, but we'll get there, one way or another."
Brazil will no doubt have something to say about that.--JC
The goal galvanized the U.S., especially its midfield tandem of Lloyd and Shannon Boxx. The best chance for the Americans came in the 87th minute, when Cheney picked out substitute Kelley O'Hara at the far post, but she could only hit her volley wide.
Now the U.S. must regroup in time for Sunday's quarterfinal against Brazil, which eliminated the U.S. four years ago in the semifinals. The Americans will likely have injured midfielder Heather O'Reilly back in the lineup, but Sundhage will have plenty of worries about her defense against Marta & Co., especially in relation to LePeilbet's continued shaky play.
The consistency of the U.S. midfield will also be a concern, and Brazil is a side that can be plenty physical when the need arises.
Player ratings (1-10, 10 = best)
G Hope Solo, 7: Couldn't be faulted for either goal and delivered a superb foot save off a Schelin breakaway in the early going.
D Amy LePeilbet, 3.5: Actually started off playing much better than in previous matches, but the penalty changed all that. Went back to alternating good passes with bad ones, and her deflection off Fischer's free kick pretty much summed up her tournament.
D Rachel Buehler, 5.5: Beaten for pace several times, and her misplay and foul on Sjogran set up Fischer's free kick. As she has all tournament, she improved in the second half with some crunching tackles, but she needs to put together a more complete performance.
D Christie Rampone, 6: Not as reliable as in previous outings, but still defused some tricky situations. Eventually got the better of Schelin and Oqvist in the second half.
D Ali Krieger, 6.5: Single biggest deficiency is she can't be cloned. Was the Americans' best defender early on and contributed to the attack as well. She did go off the boil a bit in the second half as the game became more end-to-end.
M Lauren Cheney, 6: Continues to alternate great plays with poor ones. Will make a great dribble and then a poor pass. And her shooting continues to be either off target or right at the keeper. Still one of the more dangerous U.S. players though.
M Shannon Boxx, 5: Battled hard in the air, but didn't do enough otherwise to tilt the midfield battle in the Americans' favor. Also got caught on the wrong side of a few Swedish counterattacks. Perked up in the second half, but needs to do more to impose her will from the start.
M Carli Lloyd, 5: Nearly toe-poked a goal home on a goalmouth scramble, but mostly struggled against the likes Fischer and Dahlkvist. Delivered a more consistent second half, but the U.S. needed more.
M Megan Rapinoe, 5.5: Took plenty of hits, and embarked on some great runs, but the final pass needed to be sharper.
F Abby Wambach, 6.5: Her holdup play was superb and she could have had a few assists on another night. At the least, her goal -- no matter how she scored it -- should give her a valuable boost of confidence for the knockout stages.
F Amy Rodriguez, 4: Went close with an audacious lob early on, but still needs to be more ruthless from conventional opportunities.
F Alex Morgan, 6: Improved the U.S. attack by making a general nuisance of herself, winning several corners, including the one from which the U.S. scored.
D Stephanie Cox, 6: Given LePeilbet's struggles and Cox's steady play, it's tough to see how Cox doesn't start the quarterfinal.
M Kelley O'Hara, 5: Struggled with her touch and blew a glorious chance to equalize in the 87th minute after good work from Cheney.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN.com. He is also the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He can be reached at email@example.com.
2011 Women's World Cup
2011 champion: Japan
Topics: Women's World Cup