Coming into the World Cup tournament, Friday night’s match against Sweden looked to be the biggest challenge for the United States women’s soccer team during the group stage.
The two teams know each other well, having enjoyed a spirited rivalry for the past several years at the international level.
Besides that, coach Pia Sundhage led the U.S. squad to two Olympic gold medals and a second place in the 2011 World Cup before returning to her native country to take over the head job for the Swedish national team, so she’s the ultimate insider.
However, it may be that Sweden was a bit too preoccupied with this match, because they were surprised by Nigeria for an unanticipated 3-3 draw in the opener on June 8.
That added extra pressure to the day, since the Americans made a second-half surge to beat Australia 3-1 in their initial contest.
Much of Friday’s game resembled the skilled, defensive slugfest between two soccer heavyweights that it, in fact, was. The U.S. is No. 2 and Sweden No. 5 in the FIFA women’s world ranking.
It added a little extra spice to the scenario that No. 1 Germany was able to do no better than a draw against Norway on Thursday. The Germans were expected to be dominant but they suddenly look vulnerable.
Both squads had some chances in the Friday match, but in the end, they had to settle for a scoreless draw.
Although the Americans would surely have preferred an outright victory, the tie still leaves them in first place in the group. And, more importantly, they control their own destiny as far as the outcome of group play goes.
Group D’s final games are on Tuesday. The U.S. takes on Nigeria, which is in last place in the group after falling to Australia 2-0 in the second match.
After the Nigerians earned the draw with Sweden, the Americans will surely not take this game for granted. That should sharpen their focus for the contest.
The situation is pretty simple. If the U.S. is victorious on Tuesday, the Americans win the group and advance to the Round of 16 in good position.
If they tie or lose, the door will be wide open for others to earn that top spot. It’s likely that the U.S. would still make the second stage, but certainly not in the place the Americans would prefer to be in.
On the other side of the ball, the Nigerians have nothing to lose. The pressure will be on the Americans, and that may provide some opportunities for Nigeria.
With three full days before they play again, the U.S. players and coaching staff have plenty of time to make some adjustments and try to bolster their sputtering attack.
That will need to improve if the Americans hope to take advantage of their opportunity on Tuesday.