[WOMEN'S WORLD CUP SPOTLIGHT]Led by captain Nilla Fischer and a pair of speedy forwards, Sweden knocked off the U.S., 2-1, to capture first place in Group C and give the Americans much to ponder as they prepare for a quarterfinal against Brazil.
Pace in the attacking third has been a vital staple of most successful teams at the 2011 Women’s World Cup, and in their meeting Wednesday on the final day of group play, Sweden’s clever deployment of speed helped it beat the USA and top the group.
Though the Americans finished with a 20-9 edge in shots, they were down, 2-0, at halftime on goals resulting from a penalty kick and deflected free kick. Abby Wambach scored for the USA by going up for a header and connecting with her upper arm from yet another set play midway through the second half. And Sweden fended off several attacks to hand the Americans their first-ever loss in World Cup group play.
Whether with long balls or quick, short passes, Sweden often aimed for the middle, where it bypassed U.S. central mids Shannon Boxx and Carli Lloyd with balls played between them or chipped over their heads.
Sweden stated its intent to test the U.S. central core as early as the fourth minute, when the flag went up as Lotta Schelin raced in pursuit of a long ball played out of the back. A minute later, Christie Rampone stepped up to challenge a ball through midfield for Lisa Dahlqvist, whose flick left Rampone stranded and the speedy Josefine Oquivst one-v-one against Rachel Buehler. Their tussle yielded a foul called on Oqvist, and as Solo lined up to take the free kick Boxx and Lloyd held a quick discussion about plugging up that area of the field.
But gaps kept re-appearing. A few minutes before Amy LePeilbet’s clumsy tackle felled Schelin in the penalty area, Solo bailed out her defenders when they reacted slowly to an attempted clearance by Lloyd that skimmed off her head in the wrong direction. Solo’s kick save foiled Schelin’s low shot after the Swedish forward raced between Rampone and Buehler get the ball.
Sweden took its 1-0 lead in the 15th minute when a U.S. giveaway prompted yet another thrust through the middle, and when Dahlqvist’s partially blocked shot squirted into the area, Schelin reacted first. LePeilbet’s desperate tackle toppled her several yards inside the penalty area; she was cautioned, and Dahlqvist blasted the penalty kick high over Solo’s outstretched arms as the keeper dived to her right.
Without Lori Lindsey's central presence and no Heather O’Reilly buzzing up the right flank, the U.S. labored to build through the middle, where Swedish captain Fischer shut off passing lanes and attempted dribbles. She also directed efficient attacks through the middle, and when a misplay by Buehler let the ball slip through for Therese Sjogran to take toward goal, Buehler’s foul on Sjogran offered up a free kick in the middle about 30 yards out.
Fischer’s powerful shot struck the thigh of LePeilbet, standing a few yards off to the side of the U.S. defensive wall, and completely wrong-footed Solo as it veered in the opposite direction and looped inside the post. As commentator and former U.S. international Julie Foudy said on the ESPN telecast, “But that’s really a free kick that never should have been given in the first place, if you don’t make that foolish foul in the first place.”
Though the chances decreased for the U.S. in the second half, there were opportunities before halftime.
In the opening minutes Lauren Cheney delivered a rising shot and Wambach delivered a low attempt that Swedish keeper Hedvig Lindahleasily covered, and Lloyd shot wide from further out. Later in the half, Cheney – who couldn’t miss the target in the opener against North Korea, during which she put all five of her attempts on goal – cracked one middle-distance shot just wide of the post, sent another over the crossbar, and also misfired on a header.
Cheney’s mostly costly miss, in the 20th minute, came from a determined move by Wambach, who held off a challenge to collect a dropping ball and scuffed it into Cheney’s wheelhouse. Ten minutes later, the U.S. nearly equalized when LePeilbet played a great ball over the back line that dropped for Amy Rodriguez to hit first-time on the bounce as she grappled with Charlotte Rohlin, but Rodriguez’s lob glanced off the top of the bar.
Rodriguez came off at halftime; Coach Pia Sundhage sent in super-sub Alex Morgan to play up top with Wambach. Morgan’s energy unsettled Sweden on a few occasions but still, Rohlin and her defenders were usually first to the balls delivered by midfielders Boxx, Lloyd, and Megan Rapinoe, whose poise and touch on the right side were offset by Sweden's resolute control of the middle.
Wambach’s participation in the match had been in question after she missed two days of training prior to the match so she could rest a sore Achilles’ tendon. She scored in the 67th minute by crashing into an opponent going for Lloyd’s corner kick and directing the ball into her net with her shoulder.
LePeilbet was replaced in the second half by Stephanie Cox, who brought more of an attacking element to the left-back position but seemed a strange move to make while trailing. The final sub,Kelly O’Hara (for Rapinoe), could have tied the match in the final minutes when she steered a low cross to the back post wide of the net.
That rugged, straightforward approach personified by Wambach’s goal may bear fruit on Sunday against Brazil, which hasn’t been impressive defensively while winning all three of its group games. But along with the most electrifying player in the tournament, Marta, and ample doses of skill, the Brazilians can control midfield and attack with speed, factors with which the Americans must find ways to contend.
July 6 in Wolfsburg
Sweden 2 USA 1.Goals: Dahlkvist (pen.) 16, Fischer 35; Wambach (Cheney) 67.
USA --Solo, Krieger, 1Buehler, Rampone, LePeilbet (Cox, 59), Rapinoe (O’Hara, 73), Boxx, Lloyd, Cheney, Rodriguez (Morgan, 46), Wambach.
Sweden -- Lindahl, Rohlin, Svensson, Thunebro, Larsson, Sjogran (Goransson, 65), Forsberg, Dahlkvist (Hammarstrom, 77), Fischer (Sembrant, 88), Schelin, Oqvist
Yellow cards: Sweden -- Fischer 60; USA -- LePeilbet 14.