LE HAVRE, France — How nice it must feel to go through 10 days at a major tournament without experiencing a single moment of anxiety.
What a luxury it is to be able to treat the group stage of a World Cup as a week-and-a-half long warm-up exercise.
That has been the reality for the United States women’s soccer team, which pummeled its first two opponents in this round, Thailand and Chile, by a combined score of 16-0. The Americans’ final group game Thursday against Sweden, some thought, would be the moment when the tournament really began for the United States.
But then it really didn’t. Sweden didn’t seem up for a challenge. It didn’t need to be. Both teams already had qualified for the knockout stage. And so the United States cruised to a 2-0 win in the Stade Océane and left wondering when the first real speed bump might come.
“When you come out of the group stage, a lot of what we talk about it mentality and being healthy,” Coach Jill Ellis said about her players, “and I think they’re in a really good place.”
For the Americans and their fans, this has been a blissful month, free from despair and tension. For the first time, the United States did not allow a single goal during the group stage. It also set a new World Cup record for group stage goals, with 18.
But for neutral observers, so far, the United States perhaps has been almost too good to be interesting. Potential narratives, bits of drama, have been tossed their way — about the team, around Thursday’s game — but none seemed to stick.
Would Ellis order her players to back off in the game to avoid a potential meeting with France in the quarterfinals? She has been asked that question almost every time she was made available to speak with reporters from the moment she stepped on French soil.
Or another one: Did the American women have demons to exorcise? Sweden, after all, had eliminated the United States from the 2016 Olympics in the quarterfinal round, the earliest exit ever for the American women at a major tournament.
But the plot lines fell flat, in part because the Swedes did not play along. Coach Peter Gerhardsson made seven changes to his starting lineup and gave four players their World Cup debuts. Afterward, he implied that he was resting players to prepare for the round of 16.
“We know that we have another match on Monday, a knockout match, and that’s the match that’s the most important one,” Gerhardsson said. “When we looked at the plan for the match and how to go about it, we didn’t think in advance that it was important to end up first or second in the group.”
After the game, a French journalist asked Ellis if she would have preferred having played a tough game during the group stage.
“I think you’re not giving enough credit to the opponent we played today,” she said.
But the truth was that the Americans dominated. They had 58 percent of possession and repeatedly snatched the ball off the feet of the Swedes. And whatever suspense there could have been was snapped like a twig before all the fans had found their seats.
In the third minute, Megan Rapinoe skipped a corner kick from the left side toward the near post, where Sam Mewis came toward the ball before letting it run through her legs. Lindsey Horan was making a zigzagging run through the penalty area, and by the time the ball bounced into a small opening in front of the goal, Horan had shed her defender and was free to tap it in.
The Americans’ second goal came in the 50th minute, when Sweden’s defense failed to clear a cross from the left side, letting the ball fall to the feet of Tobin Heath, who measured out a tiny opening of space and drilled a shot through it. The ball deflected off defender Jonna Andersson’s left foot, launched into the air like a skier off a ramp, and looped into the net. The goal, initially credited to Heath, was later changed to an own goal.
The next team that will try its best to make the United States sweat will be Spain. The teams will meet Monday in Reims for a round-of-16 match that Rapinoe said would present an unusual sort of challenge.
“Spain plays a different style than a lot of women’s teams play,” Rapinoe said, “They’re obviously very good in possession, with more of that tiki-taka style. If you don’t play against that a lot, it’s difficult.”
For a moment on Thursday, it felt as if injuries might provide some intrigue. Midfielder Julie Ertz sat out the match as she nursed a hip contusion. And Alex Morgan, the team’s starting center forward, was pulled off the field at halftime after taking an awkward spill around the 30th minute that left her limping.
But both players were all smiles after the game. Ertz said the decision to keep her out was just a precaution. Morgan declined to stop to speak to reporters, but she called out, “I’m O.K., thank you,” as she hustled into the locker room.
There was no reason to worry, after all.
At the final whistle, the players hugged. The fans stood and waved their flags. But from an emotional standpoint, it all felt a bit tame.
There had been no real tension. So of course there was no real release.
Andrew Das tracked the game live. Read on for a recap of how the United States defeated Sweden.
Lloyd misses a chance to seal it!
That would have been the cherry on top: Lloyd slipping behind the Swedish defense for a free shot at Lindahl, but she hits it straight at the goalkeeper, who parries.
The chance is cleared but with the seven minutes of added time we just got, it’s surely not the last one we’ll see.
What’s next for the U.S. and Sweden if this score holds?
A win or a tie gives the United States first place in Group F and a date with Spain in Reims on Monday (noon Eastern) in the round of 16. That will please the tourism office in Reims, which Andrew Keh noted today already has enjoyed a United States fan invasion once in this World Cup. The news may be less good for Spain, for obvious reasons.
The game looming beyond that is the one that everyone is talking about, however. It’s the one that everyone has talked about since the draw in December, actually: United States vs. France, the host nation, in the quarterfinals. It’s a game worthy of a final, and someone will be very unhappy to lose it. But a draw’s a draw.
As the group runner-up in this scenario, Sweden would get the second-place finisher in Group E, likely Canada or the Netherlands. It’s not an easy matchup by any means, but it’s probably a more favorable than running into France.
(Reminder: Sweden can flip that entire script with a win tonight, in which case it will play Spain — and then maybe France. A tie won’t do it, because of the Americans’ vastly superior goal difference in the group stage.)
Brief delay for a head injury; Bjorn is down.
Sweden with a well-worked switch ends up with a cross, which O’Hara clears. But only after clanging heads with Bjorn in the center. She’s down, but soon rises and walks off.
Sadly, her treatment there appears to be the old, “You O.K.?” concussion test we all know well, and she sprints back on.
Christen Press coming on for Rose Lavelle.
Press, so good against Chile, replaces Lavelle, who was surprisingly sturdy and effective running the attack tonight.
Seger goes off for Sweden at the same time; that’s both captains now gone from this game.
Press, by the way, immediately took up a position ahead of Rapinoe, Lloyd and Heath. She might get that first goal she’s been seeking. Though it’s hard not to think that the United States doesn’t regret adding a second through all of its pressure.
A single mistake and the good feelings will fade.
Naeher quietly stares down another test.
The game has been moving away from her, but it’s worth noting that Alyssa Naeher has faced a couple of tough spots — three or four — and has handled each one. That’s good news for Ellis headed into the knockouts, since Naeher didn’t have much to do in the United States’ first two games.
That’s gone down as an own goal, actually.
Andersson, who deflected it, is credited with an own goal, but make no mistake: that’s only a goal because of Heath.
GOALLL! Heath doubles the U.S. leads with a rocket!
That came out of nowhere. An attack crumbles but the clearance was cycled to Rapinoe on the left. She drove a cross to Lloyd, who appeared offside, and it was cleared on to Heath at the back post.
She froze Andersson there, then with one quick motion pushed the ball right and roofed it — with the help of a deflection — over Lindahl.
(There’s a delay for video review, surely to check Lloyd’s contribution to the play, but the goal stands.)
Well that’s interesting: Lloyd on, Morgan off.
Unclear if Morgan picked up an injury — she did get kicked one — but Lloyd takes her place to start the second half. Kind of a nice card to play if you’re Jill Ellis: Lloyd is a former world player of the year, and she has three goals in this tournament through two games.
No subs for Sweden.
United States 1, Sweden 0
Sweden forced Naeher into a diving punch with a cross in added time, but it feels like 1-0 isn’t an accurate reflection of how well the United States controlled that half. They set the pace. They had the best chances, the best crosses. When they lost the ball, they just took it right back.
About the only thing that didn’t go better was the score. Sweden will be pleased to get a chance to regroup, and the get 15 minutes away from that ball-hawking pressure. But there will probably be more. And remember: Jill Ellis has fresh legs (Christen Press, Carli Lloyd< Mallory Pugh) straining to get into this one.
Sweden has six substitutes warming up. Changes coming at halftime?
Jakobsson and Asllani just had a nice exchange to get around the corner on the right wing, but Sweden — despite a couple of shots — has not been able to get out from under the unrelenting U.S. pressure.
Is Coach Peter Gerhardsson thinking about a switch at halftime? Who knows? But Jakobsson just stripped Dunn and rocketed a shot over the crossbar, so maybe Sweden’s players sense they better get something going.
Ball after ball scorched into the center.
The purpose that has made the United States the standout team of the group stage is on full display. Every ball is hit with intent, with power, with pace. Heath. Lavelle. Rapinoe. Mewis. All of them. They just look … dangerous. But the other thing about that kind of willful mentality — which has not been on display as completely even among the best teams here in France — is that players off the ball expect it.
Every ball is dangerous because there’s always someone running near post, or back post, or down the center channel, to meet it if it arrives.
Can the U.S. maintain this pace?
Yes, they’re winning every ball. Yes, they controlling it from sideline to sideline. But 90 minutes is a long time, and as the pace slows a bit here midway through the half, one can sense the Americans know going pedal to the pedal might have it own risks.
As if on cue, Sweden presses through Asllani, who fires a shot at Naeher from the right. She smothers that one just like the earlier one.
Hey look: Sweden is playing too!
Stina Blackstenius, the until-now-lonely center forward, takes Sweden’s first shot. But it’s from nearly 30 yards and, while hit with power, Naeher sees it all the way and smothers it.
Oddly, that might have been her first tough save of the tournament.
No letup. The United States is all over Sweden.
Dunn fires a shot from the edge of the area after Ertz and Lavelle both win the ball in midfield as Sweden somehow, some way tries to get control of the game. Ellis clearly sent her team out breathing fire, and it’s showing.
The U.S. also is racing forward whenever it can and stretching Sweden to its limit by switching the ball. They’re trying to pull open the middle for Morgan. Might just be a matter of time.
GOAL!!!! Wow. A stunning start and a goal for Horan.
The U.S. won its first corner off some early pressure, and it looked as if Rapinoe had wasted it with a bouncing ball to the near post. But Sam Mewis reached for it and no one touched it until Lindsey Horan stabbed it in from 2 yards.
Atrocious defending for the Swedes — several players and Lindahl just let the ball careen through the goal mouth — and a great start for the U.S. The goal was almost a carbon copy of Horan’s first of the tournament, against Thailand.
U.S. on the front foot early
Lavelle and Morgan took the opening kickoff and just started dribbling upfield. That’s quite the message: here we come. We dare you to stop us.
Even when the U.S. lost the ball, their pressure was apparent. They want it.
The starting lineups: Back to the regulars (except one)
Jill Ellis used Sunday’s game against Chile to make sure that every field player she brought to France could go home and say, “I got to play.” But Sweden, and the knockout games that will come next, require her A team. So that’s what she has run out there, with one exception:
Julie Ertz is out with a hip problem that U.S. Soccer says isn’t serious — “We had to chain her to the bench to keep her out of this,” one official said — but it is serious enough that it’s causing her to miss an important World Cup game.
So our official analysis is: ¯_(ツ)_/¯.
Her role will be filled by Sam Mewis, who scored twice in the American’s opening game. Expect her to be the more defensively focused member of the U.S. midfield, allowing Lindsey Horan and Rose Lavelle to maraud. (UPDATE: Horan has dropped at times to allow Mewis and Lavelle to push forward.)
United States lineup: Alyssa Naeher; Crystal Dunn, Becky Sauerbrunn, Abby Dahlkemper, Kelley O’Hara; Samantha Mewis, Lindsey Horan, Rose Lavelle; Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan (captain), Tobin Heath.
Sweden lineup: Hedvig Lindahl; Nathalie Bjorn, Amanda Ilestedt, Linda Sembrant, Jonna Andersson; Julia Zigiotti, Caroline Seger (captain), Kosovare Asllani; Sofia Jakobsson, Stina Blackstenius, Olivia Schough.
Our referee tonight is Russian: Anastasia Pustovoytova.