The mere name Sweden brings with it a type of respect in women’s soccer that other quarterfinal opponents like China (even with the 1999 World Cup final) don’t quite have at the moment. Sweden – the United States and Brazil being the only two others – is one of only three nations to qualify for every World Cup and Olympics and is certainly no stranger to big games on the international level.
While Sweden’s lifetime record of 5-20-11 (Sweden says it is 6-22-12 all-time) against the USWNT isn’t exactly stellar, it has been competitive enough to remove some of the intimidation factor that might strike another team at this stage. You may remember that last summer Sweden played the U.S. to a 0-0 draw in their last meeting and if it weren’t for a Megan Klingenberg clearance off the line, Sweden might have won, limiting the USWNT to just two shots on goal in the process. At the 2011 World Cup, Sweden beat the U.S. 2-1 to win the group in a contest that wasn’t a fluke, and went on to the semifinals before falling to eventual champion Japan.
Those are all facts and they are undisputed, but they don’t exactly display the reality of the situation facing these two teams Friday afternoon in Brasilia. That group stage match in 2015 might have marked the nadir of the Jill Ellis era, a stagnant effort (Sweden only had one shot on goal, too) from a team that was searching mightily for an identity–an identity it didn’t find until the knockout stages, when it rolled to its first World Cup in 16 years and hasn’t seemed to slow down since.
Sweden, on the other hand, hasn’t found an identity under Pia Sundhage. Although they advanced last summer, Sweden didn’t win a game and was pummeled 4-1 by Germany in the second round. It did find a bit of the old magic in March, allowing only one goal in three matches against Norway, Switzerland, and the Netherlands (all three 2015 World Cup qualifiers) to win the European Olympic qualifying tournament and grab the last ticket to Brazil.
But, even being kind, they’ve been underwhelming so far in the Olympics, getting by South Africa on a late goal, and suffering the worst loss in the 43-year history of Swedish women’s soccer, 5-1 to host Brazil (and the 1 was a late consolation goal from Lotta Schelin). They held China to a 0-0 draw to advance, but rarely looked confident in that match, either.
Sundhage obviously knows the U.S., its personnel, and its coach, but it’s not like Ellis is going to throw too many surprises at her in either lineup or tactics. And there’s probably little she can do to stop them. Sweden has plenty of experience all over the field, and an opponent that is unlikely to get beat by a lopsided score. As soccer proved Tuesday, strange things can happen when games stay close, and a match like that shows how impressive the U.S. success at the Olympics (and in general) is. But lightning is not likely to strike twice in a row.
United States vs Sweden: noon EDT (NBC Sports Network)
As I said, there shouldn’t be many surprises from the U.S. side, with the only question marks being the health of Julie Johnston (I suspect she’ll play) and what wingers to start (likely Mallory Pugh and Tobin Heath). It’s up to Sundhage and Sweden to try to stop them. Sundhage has rolled with a 4-2-3-1 at the Olympics and will likely stay with it, trying to match up with the U.S. head-to-head. With Kosovare Asllani possibly not 100 percent, she might not start. That would mean most of the pressure of trying to stop Pugh, Heath, and whomever else is in a wide position, would fall to Swedish youngsters Jessica Samuelsson, Magdalena Eriksson (outside backs), Fridolina Rolfo, and Sofia Jakobsson (who does have a little more experience). Marta ran wild against them, and there’s no reason to think the U.S. won’t do the same.
Sweden’s strength should be in the middle with Caroline Seger, Lisa Dahlkvist, and Schelin (with Dahlkvist being the youngest of that trio at 29). Sweden will likely try to pack it in and defend in numbers, and Schelin (who could start up top as well) could obviously take advantage of the few opportunities she might get. But how many will there be?
BEST PRIOR OLYMPIC FINISH:
United States – Gold (2012, 2008, 2004, 1996)
Sweden – 4th place (2004)
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
United States: Alex Morgan – Morgan has not been poor at the Olympics so far, but she has only one goal (albeit a nice one against New Zealand) and was really taken out of the game by France until the final 30 minutes. Sweden’s defense (which does not have Wendie Renard) should not be as stout, but Nilla Fischer has 146 caps and will certainly come in with a good idea of what she’s up against. Morgan running freely into channels consistently will likely mean a comfortable USWNT victory.
Sweden: Hedvig Lindahl – If you’re going to pull a big upset, you need your goalkeeper to have a great match, and Lindahl is certainly capable. She’s been Sweden’s starter (with a couple of interruptions) since way back in the 2003 World Cup and she would love to have a big moment to add as she nears the end of her career.
UNDER THE RADAR
United States: Julie Johnston – We really don’t know how healthy she is, although we’re pretty sure she’ll be starting on Friday (unless Ellis and the USWNT are playing some mind games, which does happen occasionally). Fortunately for her, Sweden is not blessed with speed all over the field, but as we saw on Tuesday, all it takes is one mistake in the back for things to go wrong in a hurry, so she’ll need to get the rust off quickly.
Sweden: Fridolina Rolfo – Young Rolfo, only 22, has shown a little bit of the attitude that is sorely lacking elsewhere in the Swedish side, and might be the one player (other than Schelin) that may be capable of something spectacular for Sweden, even if she has only 12 caps to her credit and has obviously yet to score in Brazil.
Neutral: Field conditions – The Estadio Nacional Mane Garrincha seems to not be at its best, which might be slightly understandable given this will be the ninth game played on it in as many days at the Olympics. What role could it play? Well, it might favor Sweden, who will likely not have too much of the ball in this one, but who knows?
— Sebastian Salazar (@SebiSalazarCSN) August 11, 2016
One thing Sweden cannot do is give up an early goal, and the U.S. would desperately love one to calm their nerves. But regardless of what happens in the first 20 minutes, the relentless pressure from the United States should be enough to see them through to the semifinals.
United States 2-0