Why the U.S. will be its best possible self in showdown against Sweden
DEAUVILLE, France -- The World Cup title of four years ago is history. The present continues Thursday (3 p.m. ET), when the United States plays Sweden in its final World Cup group game.
This is a showdown for the Americans that really began three years ago against the same opponent. Cowardice and courage had nothing to do with what happened when the U.S played Sweden in a 2016 Olympic quarterfinal, no matter how much those characterizations defined the day once Hope Solo uttered them following a penalty shootout that eliminated the U.S. before the semifinals of a major tournament for the first time.
Sweden wasn't cowardly to cede possession, protect its goal and look for chances to send attackers on a lightning raid. And if the U.S. showed courage in throwing itself at those defenses for 120 minutes during a 1-1 stalemate, it was also obstinately unimaginative in its valor.
One team had a plan. The other team had a collection of talent but no identity.
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So while Thursday's game between old rivals determines the path each will travel into the knockout stage in this tournament, it also tests how far the U.S. has come in three years. For this team, which retains 15 of 20 players from the 2016 Olympics and only 11 of 23 from the 2015 World Cup, playing Sweden is a reminder that this tournament isn't about retaining a title as much as reclaiming an identity.
"I don't necessarily think of the World Cup as often as I do the Olympics," midfielder Julie Ertz said of the role of reigning champion before the tournament. "I know this is the World Cup, so a lot of people ask about the last World Cup. But the last World Cup wasn't the most recent tournament. For me, if anything, I have a bitter taste in my mouth because the last thing I remember is losing to Sweden."
In the months between winning their most recent World Cup and watching Sweden celebrate at the United States' expense in the Olympics, Lauren Holiday, Christie Rampone and Abby Wambach retired. Solo was banished after her comments, never to return to the national team. In their places came Crystal Dunn, Lindsey Horan and Mallory Pugh, all of whom are playing their first major tournament.
An alternate who traveled with the team in Brazil -- her first major tournament trip at the senior level -- Sam Mewis recalled walking back to her hotel room in gleeful shock when she got to keep a bag of swag that Alex Morgan's sponsors provided to players. It was a new world.
A few days ago, Mewis started and scored twice in a World Cup game. That's a lot of change in three years, both for the individuals involved and for the team incorporating them into a coherent whole.
"I was young and kind of just out there doing my thing," Pugh recalled. "I remember the older players saying we were so disappointed, and I realized, 'Yeah, we lost in the quarterfinals, and that's not something the U.S. does.'"
The U.S. was a team with one foot almost unavoidably in the past and one in the future, straddling a precarious present. It could have survived that game against Sweden, as any penalty shootout is essentially a coin flip. It might even have gone on and won a tournament that lacked a dominant team. Such is the luxury of the deepest talent pool on the planet. But win or lose, the U.S. was far removed being the best possible version of itself.
"That was three years ago, right after a lot of people retired from the team," Dunn said. "We were definitely rebuilding and trying to figure out a new identity in a sense following the World Cup. But I think we did a good job of ironing out all the details and moving on from that game."
Which is why Thursday isn't all about revenge or redemption against the team that eliminated the U.S. three years ago but also about evolution. There is an emotional element, to be sure, all the more because the U.S. and Sweden have played so often in major tournaments, including five consecutive World Cups and six in all. But what the game in 2016 emphasized was that a new U.S. era couldn't just replicate the past. It had to adapt to the sport's contemporary challenges. That's bigger than rivalry.
Teams have for years adopted a defensive mentality against the U.S. as almost a survival instinct. It didn't matter what Thailand's plan was last week, for instance. The sheer talent gap between the teams dictated that the underdog scrambled to defend in its own end throughout. But as the women's game becomes ever more technical, players in many places growing up with access to better training, competition, coaching and more supportive cultures, better and better teams are happy to absorb American energy and then expose those spaces.
Much of this World Cup has looked like what Sweden did against the U.S. three years ago.
"It showed that we were going to have to add something to our game," Becky Sauerbrunn said. "Sweden bunkered in on us, obviously. And I think we've seen in this tournament that some of the teams are bunkering in. It's very hard to break down. You see teams you would think could run up the score eking out 1-0 or 2-1 games. I think it's just the evolution of the game.
"Sweden started defending in a low block, and we had to learn how to attack and break down a low block. We absolutely learned a lot from that game."
One response was adopting the 4-3-3 as the team's base formation. When World Cup holdovers Tobin Heath, Morgan and Megan Rapinoe all responded to the open competition for roster spots by playing some of the best soccer of their careers, the formation became the best way to get them on the field together in the most advantageous positions.
Putting Dunn at outside back was a response. It isn't her preferred or ideal position, but it's a way to get her on the field from the outset, unlike the 2016 game against Sweden in which she subbed in late. Exercising patience with Rose Lavelle was a response. Her creative skills in midfield was an element missing from a lineup with deep reserves of talent in wide spaces.
"How effective is a player when there is no space, when that is their bread and butter?" manager Jill Ellis asked in considering the Olympic result. "It wasn't a transition game against Sweden, on our part. They sat in and they limited our space. Well, who can operate in that environment?"
It wasn't a lack of chances that doomed the U.S. against Sweden in 2016, as Ellis also noted, but inefficiency in turning those chances into goals. That remained an issue for the U.S. as recently as this spring, though that was overshadowed in recent days by the record-scoring outburst against Thailand and Christiane Endler's heroics in goal for Chile.
The U.S. played a team yet that is capable of testing a back line left more exposed by all the commitment to attacking and pressing forward. Sweden will be the first with that potential.
So it isn't clear yet that the changes set in motion by the game against Sweden three years ago are complete or ever will be complete. That's the test the World Cup provides.
It is clear that everything this team is and hopes to be began on that afternoon in Brasilia.
"I definitely look upon that for motivation and encouragement because I never want to feel the way that I felt after that tournament," Morgan said recently. "Looking ahead now, this team, the personnel is more from '16. So we have to look at how we can turn around and continue to hold that No. 1 ranking and really prove what we've been working on."