There was the “Send-Off Series presented by [processed meat company redacted],” with three overmatched opponents dispatched by a combined score of 11-0.
Then the hype and hyperbole of media junkets like the team visit to Twitter’s NYC headquarters, and a quiet training camp at Tottenham Hotspur’s posh facility in the London suburbs.
Finally, the tournament proper began – albeit with two glorified training sessions, lopsided wins over hopelessly outgunned adversaries.
“We are climbing up a mountain now,” Carli Lloyd told reporters after Sunday’s 3-0 defeat of Chile, “and it’s only going to get harder.”
After months – no, years – of preparation, anticipation and pontification, the USWNT are finally about to face a legit challenger as they wrap up group-stage play vs. old enemies Sweden.
And the Scandinavians are not just the only thing remotely resembling a challenge in Group F – they’re one of a handful of teams that have a realistic chance of knocking them off in a head-to-head battle.
Why are Sweden such a problem for the U.S., and who else can pose problems for the defending champions? Let’s dig in.
The legacy of Brasilia
Sweden, of course, upset the U.S. in the quarterfinals of the 2016 Olympics in Brazil, bunkering-and-countering their way to a penalty-kick shootout win.
Led by former USWNT coach Pia Sundhage, the Swedes exploited U.S. wastefulness by snatching a goal on a quick counterattack, then outlasting them in PKs.
It was a stunning collapse for the reigning world and Olympic champs, a painful failure that set off a cascading series of consequences, from the de facto end of Hope Solo’s career to coach Jill Ellis’ rejiggering of her team’s tactical foundations.
“I think was the first time that we had seen a team, Sweden – a very established, a very veteran, a very experienced team – take an approach to sit low on us, meaning to sit in their own half,” Ellis told reporters during the USWNT’s send-off series. “Usually, you play teams potentially that can’t match up with you, and so they take that approach, but here was a world power in soccer taking that approach.
“I remember talking to my staff coming out of the Olympics and saying we’ve got to make sure we’re prepared for this piece of the evolution.”
Ellis spent most of the ensuing three years tinkering with possible solutions. She tried a three-woman back line along with several other formations. She done some dabbling with a high press and evaluated a long list of players before, somewhat strangely, settling on a very similar group to the one used in those Olympics.
Her most enduring takeaway, it appears, is the need to push additional numbers into the attack against defensive, deep-lying opposition.
Ellis typically starts Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe and Tobin Heath as an attacking trident atop a 4-3-3 shape, backed by pure playmaker Rose Lavelle and the do-it-all, box-to-box skills of Lindsey Horan.
She then goes a step further by fielding Crystal Dunn and Kelley O’Hara – both converted attackers – as fullbacks. She gives Dunn and O’Hara the freedom to range forward deep into the attack. That often leaves just the two center backs and one holding midfielder (usually Becky Sauerbrunn, Abby Dahlkember and Julie Ertz) minding the defensive shop.
It’s easy to pull off those kinds of swashbuckling overloads against the likes of Thailand and Chile, of course. Teams with more quality and higher levels of fitness and tactical intelligence are another matter.
With their experience, cleverness, discipline and technical ability, Sweden are eminently capable of exploiting the gaps such an aggressive approach can leave in the back. In fact, that’s exactly how they rocked the U.S. in Brazil, with a quick, clean passing combination springing Stina Blackstenius in transition to outwit the USWNT and push them onto their heels:
Whereas Ellis appears to have concluded that a higher quantity of players in the attack is the way to beat bus-parking opponents, other coaches tend to focus on the qualities of the players involved – typically crafty ones, comfortable in tight spaces – and their collective shape and capacity to combine. In this regard, it’s worth wondering whether Ellis’ response to the disaster of 2016 could end up heightening the odds of a redux this summer.
“Just from a physical standpoint, they’re a much stronger team, much more organized defensively, and tactically just a lot smarter than the other two [Group F] teams,” Rapinoe said of Sweden this week. “So it’s going to be a battle. we’re going to have to be really patient … we’re going to have to break them down and kind of play the game within the game in order to open it up for us.”
Other snakes in the grass
The other top teams in the world are smart enough to deploy Sweden’s Olympic gambit; the problem for the U.S. is that they’re also capable of challenging them in additional ways as well.
Germany and Norway are disciplined defensively and can also emphasize possession to control a match’s tempo if need be. They can pose danger on set pieces, another crucial area where any USWNT letdown can be punished by elite competitors.
Japan gave the world one blueprint on beating the Americans when they pulled off their upset win in the 2011 WWC final, matching psychological resilience with tiki-taka pass-and-move mastery.
European champions the Netherlands are the United States’ equals in terms of technical and tactical levels, though the Oranje would probably be less comfortable in a bunker posture. Rising powers England clearly outplayed the U.S. when they faced off in the SheBelieves Cup earlier this year, and were a bit unlucky to only take a 2-2 draw:
The USWNT and Canada have quietly built a fierce rivalry over the years, exemplified by their blood-and-thunder classic in the semifinals of the 2012 Olympics, and while results have canted lopsidedly in favor of the U.S., at some point that will likely change.
And remember, a Sweden rematch could well crop up down the line in the tournament final.
The host nation cometh
And then there’s France. It’s true that they’ve accrued a reputation for choking in big moments over the years, yet they also possess the ability to match or eclipse the U.S. in all the aforementioned phases of play – and can fall back on the enormous factor of home-field advantage this summer.
And unless Sweden manages to defeat the USWNT on Thursday, the bracket says the U.S. and France are likely to meet up in the quarterfinals in Paris on June 28. Les Bleues were deserving 3-1 winners when they faced off in January:
What you want vs. what you need
Which brings us to one last wrinkle: It’s entirely plausible that a loss to Sweden this week is the best thing that could happen to the USWNT at this juncture.
The U.S. already booked their tickets to the knockout rounds. A loss to Sweden would drop them to second in Group F. That would drop them into the opposite side of the bracket, where they’d meet the Netherlands or Canada in the round of 16. Advance there, and Germany awaits as the likely quarterfinals matchup.
Is facing the two-time World Cup winners really better than having to beat the talented host nation? In this case, it might just be so. But that’s not the main reason a Sweden loss could benefit Ellis & Co. in the longer run.
The biggest benefit to a group-stage setback lies in the mental and tactical lessons it would force the favorites to process on the fly.
Much has been made of the USWNT’s great chemistry and sky-high collective confidence, and not without cause. But much the same could be said of the 2016 and 2011 squads. The United States Women carry a decades-long culture of success and camaraderie, and they’re used to winning, whatever the circumstances.
But that, combined with the small number of teams who can go toe-to-toe with them, can be perilous. The USWNT are rarely really tested.
Three years ago, everything was going great in Brazil, until it wasn’t – and just like that, their string of Olympic success was over.
Given how heavily Ellis has wagered on her front-foot tactics, the Sweden match might be her last chance for a reality check before the knockout rounds, where mistakes and oversights can be quite costly indeed.