LE HAVRE, France – So by easing up and finishing second in its Women’s World Cup group – which would require losing, an outcome foreign to Jill Ellis’ squad – the U.S. national soccer team would dodge a potentially perilous quarterfinal with France next week.
Consider: Passage to the round of 16 has already been secured and regardless of whether they finish first or second, the Americans will play a second-place side Monday. No team wants to face the hosts and their flag-waving, La Marseillaise-singing supporters in a rocking stadium either.
Oh, who are we kidding?
“For us to throw a game and not want to win right before a knockout round,” defender Crystal Dunn said, “is crazy.”
As center back Abby Dalhkemper added, “It’s in our team’s DNA to want to win.”
In describing the competitive nature of her squad, which has won eight straight and has not conceded a goal in the past six, Ellis said, “I struggled to tell my team not to tackle each other in training the day before” a game.
Getting straight to the point, Dunn said, “We are not thinking anything other than keeping our foot on the gas.”
In the first two Group F matches, the Americans floored the accelerator for 90 hard-charging minutes, lapping Thailand at a record pace before leaving Chile in their dust by halftime, winning by a combined scored of 16-0.
Sweden, the U.S. opponent Thursday at Stade Oceane in this northern port city, will present much greater challenges – and a history of hindering American efforts.
But the idea the Americans would take into consideration potential matchups in the knockout stage is far-fetched. Their intended message: Bring on all comers.
“If our team can focus on our performance and play at the level we can, we are a challenge and a handful for any team,” Ellis said. “You can’t handpick who you want to play in this tournament; the team in front of you becomes the priority.”
Even if they wanted to tone it down, they have already proven their second unit is as potent as their first. The rotating center forwards (Alex Morgan and Carli Lloyd) have accounted for eight goals. Of the 23 players on the roster, only the two reserve goalkeepers have yet to appear.
The plan is to sustain the energy and fury that has fueled a spectacular start. “It really is about continuing that, feeling good when we leave the pitch tomorrow night, about the performance,” Ellis said.
The United States and Sweden are tied with six points apiece, but because of a far superior goal differential, 16-7, which is the first tiebreaker, Ellis’ squad requires only a draw to win the group. Finishing first would set up a meeting with Spain on Monday in Reims and, by advancing, a possible quarterfinal against France (3-0-0) on June 28 in Paris.
The Group F runner-up would play Canada or Netherlands in the round of 16 and probably Germany should it reach the quarterfinals.
Playing France early is probably preferable to later, when Les Bleues would have built momentum and ridden the swelling wave of national pride. The French impressed in an opening victory against South Korea but labored to beat Norway and Nigeria.
First place for the Americans is all speculative, of course. They face a formidable task in playing Sweden, which eliminated them in the 2016 Olympic quarterfinals, the earliest U.S. exit from a major tournament since women’s soccer officially went global in 1991.
“Despite the fact it’s been three years, you don’t forget the taste in your mouth when you fail” in a major competition, forward Christen Press said. “There is a little bit of that that will definitely act as motivation. You play to never have that feeling again.”
The programs are well-acquainted: This is the fifth consecutive World Cup in which they have collided in the group stage. In the previous two, there was a 0-0 draw (2015) and 2-1 Swedish victory (2011), the lone U.S. group defeat in the first seven competitions.
“What we’re going to see is a very motivated team to show that they’ve improved” since 2016, Swedish goalkeeper Hedvig Lindahl said. “I do think they want to put us in our place. At the same time, they have also communicated they are going to play seven games in this tournament, so it doesn’t feel like they have all their focus on this game.”
Ellis further fueled the fire. When asked how many Swedish players would earn starting jobs on the U.S. team, she said: “I’m not an expert on the Swedish team. They’ve got a great group of players. I would have to see them come try out and play.”
As for her own lineup, Ellis seems likely to revert to the unit that destroyed Thailand, 13-0. In the second match, she made seven lineup changes. One likely exception is center back Becky Sauerbrunn, who sat out against Thailand with a minor quadriceps injury.
Ellis possesses a wealth of front-line riches: Morgan, Megan Rapinoe and Tobin Heath form her primary trio, but Lloyd, Press and Mallory Pugh are dangerous as well.
On the back line, Tierna Davidson, who at 20 is the youngest U.S. player, stepped into the lineup against Chile and assisted twice in the first half. Dunn, however, is expected to regain the starting job at left back Thursday.
“There is no better feeling than going into a knockout round coming off a big win,” Dunn said. “Fingers crossed we can do that. No one wants to lose a game and then step into a knockout round where you have to survive. It would be crazy not to give our all and actually compete.”
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