MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Frequent rivals Sweden and the United States will meet once again at the Women’s World Cup, but this time the stakes are tremendously higher.
The two-time defending champion Americans are struggling heading into the round of 16 match on Sunday against the Swedes, who they have played often in both the World Cup and the Olympics.
“We always find a way to play them in these big tournaments, so we know they’re a very good team. Every time that we play them it’s a massive battle,” U.S. captain Lindsey Horan said ahead of the match in Melbourne, Australia.
The United States is vying for an unprecedented third consecutive World Cup title, but skirted into the knockout round with only one win in group play. The Americans were nearly eliminated by Portugal on Tuesday — a stoppage time blast from Ana Capeta hit the post to preserve a 0-0 draw that pushed the Americans through.
The United States looks nothing like the team that won the 2015 and 2019 titles. That American team pounced early on its opponents won all of its seven matches in 2019.
This year, the Americans have just four goals and coach Vlatko Andonovski is integrating 14 newcomers making their World Cup debuts.
Sweden has won all of its group matches at this World Cup and has outscored opponents 9-1. The team capped the opening stage with a 2-0 victory over Argentina on Wednesday.
“It’s the Round of 16, they’re going to be a good side and it’s going to be a tough battle,” U.S. forward Lynn Williams said. “But (we’re) just mainly focusing on what we can do and what makes us special, and hopefully go out there and win this game.”
The United States has played Sweden six times in the group stage at the World Cup, most recently in 2019 when the Americans won 2-0. The United States went on to win its record fourth overall title in the tournament.
Overall, the United States has won four of those matches against Sweden, lost one and played to a scoreless draw in 2015.
But the Swedes have held the advantage at the Olympics in recent years. The United States failed to medal at the Brazil Olympics in 2016 after being ousted by Sweden in the quarterfinals.
They played to a 1-1 draw before Sweden advanced on penalties, marking the earliest U.S. exit from an Olympics. Afterward, U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo caused controversy by calling the Swedes “cowards” for bunkering in on defense.
Sweden also beat the Americans 3-0 in the group opener at the Tokyo Olympic s. The loss snapped a 44-match U.S. unbeaten streak that had dated back to January, 2019.
The Swedes knew they would face the United States before their group final against Argentina, so they were able to rest their starters and used nine lineup changes in the group finale.
But Sweden has one less day of preparation than the Americans going into the Sunday match.
“If you are going to go all the way, you are going to have to play this kind of opposition sooner or later. And the U.S. are ranked No. 1. It might be better to play them Sunday instead of a semis or a final,” Sweden coach Peter Gerhardsson said.
“There’s not anything we can do about it,” he continued. “We’re playing them on Sunday and we’ll do everything that we’re able to mobilize, both in energy and above all, courage, which is something you have to do against teams of that quality.”
The United States will be without midfielder Rose Lavelle for the match because she picked up a pair of yellow cards in group play. That’s going to hurt the Americans because Lavelle has been one of their few energy sparks.
She came off the bench in the second half of a 1-1 draw with the Netherlands and sent a corner kick to Horan for the tying goal.
The Americans are trying to be upbeat about where they stand: on the ropes facing a strong Swedish opponent.
“We don’t want to be disappointed in ourselves, we still made it to the round of 16. Obviously we want to play better, we want to perform better, we want to entertain our U.S. fans more,” Horan said. “But the expectations are always going to be there for this national team, and they’re always going to be great.
“We’re always going to be in the pressure cooker and we love that. So, we just need to raise our standards, which we always do, and we move forward and we go out and we do everything in our power to prepare ourselves for this next game.”