For all the weight placed on team cohesion and collective performance in evaluating a soccer game, many matches are decided by which individuals step up. So it proved to be Wednesday night when Sweden beat the USA, 1-0. No U.S forward could match the guile and threat of Swedish striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, midfielders Kim Kim Källstrom and Kennedy Bakircioglü outplayed their U .S. counterparts, and the Swedish defense far more effectively blunted the opposition.
Keepers Tim Howard and Rami Shaaban saved sharply on the occasions a goal seemed imminent. But a laser blast by Källstr"m in the 56th minute beat Howard high to the near post, and by that margin did Sweden post a victory it deserved, though Bakircioglü's push on Steve Cherundolo before the Swedish winger released the ball to Källstr"m should have been punished.
A late scratch of Brian Ching (strained calf), who'd flown to Europe after playing in Houston against Dallas Sunday evening, deprived the USA of any bulk and heft up front. Coach Bob Bradley used speed and trickery up top by pairing Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey, with Benny Feilhaber starting at right mid instead.
DaMarcus Beasley added more pace on the left, and Michael Bradley and Pablo Mastroeni manned central midfield.
At halftime, Beasley moved to the right side and Feilhaber into the middle when Bobby Convey replaced Mastroeni.
Kamani Hill and Charlie Davies played the final quarter of an hour up front, and Sal Zizzo, a standout for the USA at the FIFA U-20 World Cup, earned his first cap.
The lack of a finisher cost the U.S. dearly. Beasley's shot skimmed a shot a yard wide following nice work from Dempsey and Feilhaber in the first half, and Dempsey squandered a great chance by scuffing a shot weakly to Shaaban after Donovan dummied a driven ball from Beasley.
Shaaban thwarted the best USA finish when in the final minute he stretched elastically to tip away Bradley's header from a Convey free kick.
That was about all Convey did right in his 45-plus minutes, though one slick move that didn't amount to anything drew a buzz from the crowd. His rust from rarely playing during the past 10 months starkly contrasted with Dempsey's clever touches, Beasley's knifing runs, and Donovan's timely spurts.
Yet seldom could the USA apply the proper final pass, Onyewu and Bocanegra crossed signals a few times, and for every tackle Bradley won, he gave away the ball in a bad spot.
No American could contain Bakircioglü, who switched from the right side to the left at halftime, and a rough night for left back Jonathan Bornstein ended when Jonathan Spector replaced him in the 64th minute.
Goalkeeper Tim Howard twice robbed Ibrahimovic from point-blank range after he'd breached the U.S. defense on balls played over the top, and he followed up one of those saves with a header over a rooted Howard that hit the crossbar.
Carlos Bocanegra could have dropped back to mark Ibrahimovic; instead, on the header Ibrahimovic overpowered Cherundolo, and such was the case when Sweden scored.
Bakircioglü's dribble and cut inside near the edge of the USA penalty area produced the chance for Källstrom, and his blatant shove on Cherundolo could have been rectified by either Bradley or Feilhaber, but when both missed their tackles, Källstrom crushed a rising left-footer from about 22 yards that seared the net behind Howard.
Hill and Davies forced a bit of scrambling from the Swedish back line Aside from Ibrahimovic, who plays for Inter Milan, defender Olaf Mellberg (Aston Villa), and Bakircioglü (Ajax Amsterdam), the Swedes aren't attached to famous clubs.
Yet Källstr"m, for example, toils for six-time French League champion Lyon, and his guile and workrate and toughness several times turned the match in Sweden's favor, and his goal was top-class.
Good European national teams know their systems inside and out, and at the critical moment, their class individuals make big plays. They can also maintain a higher pace for longer periods and react quicker to pressure than most of the Americans.
"The tempo of the game is faster," said Bradley. "It challenges our players to understand that the battle for every ball is a little bit more difficult, and that the reaction speed has to get better.
"There is a physical element as well. Our ability all over the field to react faster, compete for balls, and see situations quicker is something that we want improve upon, and I think when we play the better teams in Europe those lessons are apparent."
Unless and until several Americans are capable of stepping up to this level and stamping their influence against a formidable foe, their progress will stagnate.
Aug. 22 in Gothenburg, Sweden
Sweden 1 USA 0.
Goal: Kallstrom (Bakirciouglu) 56.
Sweden - Shaaban, Nilsson (Concha, 46), Mellberg, Hansson (Majstorovic, 46), Edman, Andersson, Bakircioglü, Källstrom, Wilhelmsson (Alexandersson, 46), Ibrahimovic (Rosenberg, 66), Elmander (Djuric, 76).
Coach: Lars Lagerback
USA -- Howard, Cherundolo, Onyewu, Bocanegra (Demerit, 76), Bornstein (Spector, 64, Feilhaber, Bradley, Mastroeni (Convey, 46), Beasley (Zizzo, 76), Donovan (Hill, 64), Dempsey (Davies, 85).
Coach: Bob Bradley
Shots on goal: 6-6
Corner Kicks: 5-2
Yellow cards: SWE - Källstrom 31; Bocanegra 44.
Referee: Kevin Blom (NED)