Wednesday, September 12, 2007 ESPNsoccernet: September 13, 12:16 PM UK
U.S. will need to contain Swedish offense
CHENGDU, China -- After staring down one of the most harrowing offensive onslaughts it has seen in years en route to salvaging an important point in a 2-2 draw against North Korea, the United States faces Sweden, a team that averages more goals per game against the Americans than almost any side in the world.
Kristine Lilly and the U.S. hope to bounce back strong against Sweden. (Liu Jin/GettyImages)
Such is life in the ultra-competitive Group B in this World Cup.
In 11 matches played between the United States and Sweden since 1999, the Americans lead the series 5-2-4 (wins, losses, draws). And since Greg Ryan took over as U.S. coach, Sweden is the only team to score two or more goals against his side on more than one occasion, losing by identical 3-2 scores the last two years.
And, of course, it was Sweden, not the hosts, who took Germany to extra time in the championship match of the 2003 World Cup at the Home Depot Center in Los Angeles.
The good news for the United States is that while Sweden has some history on its side, the present looks less rosy for the traditional Scandinavian power.
North Korea proved itself one of the tournament's top teams in an up-and-down thriller against the United States that brought out elements of the best in both. It's tough to say the same for Sweden after its 1-1 draw against Nigeria, a vastly improved team since the last World Cup but one that didn't create nearly as many chances as Sweden on Tuesday and remains the group's decided underdog.
Now Sweden, a team which lost key components in goalkeeper Caroline Jonsson and attacking players Josefine Oqvist and Frida Nordin to injury before the tournament even began, faces an uphill battle for points in games against its two main rivals for advancement in the United States and North Korea.
Coach Thomas Dennerby described the traditional Swedish framework as one built on defense, ensuring a team is sound in the back and then building the attack from that foundation. But while this Sweden side has a cornerstone in the back line with 29-year-old Hanna Marklund, a veteran of the last two World Cups, the strength of the team, and its best hope to stay in the mix for the quarterfinals, might be the blend of old and new talent up front.
Victoria Svensson, who scored the team's lone goal against Nigeria, and Hanna Ljungberg are proven scorers with a track record of success in the World Cup, but Sweden also boasts emerging stars like 23-year-old Lotta Schelin and 22-year-old Caroline Seger, players who posses the trademark creativity of a new generation.
U.S. women's schedule
U.S. vs. Sweden,
Chengdu Sports Center Stadium, Chengdu, China 5 a.m. ET, ESPN
U.S. vs. Nigeria,
Shanghai Hongkou Football Stadium, Shanghai, China 5 a.m. ET, ESPN
"We have a lot of scorers in the team," Schelin said. "And the most important thing is we feel like everybody wants to come forward, everybody wants to go to goal. I think it's a strong thing for our team."
Even with that attacking mind-set, Sweden will not come at the United States in quite the same way North Korea did. Thus, the American team's focus on Wednesday was less on assessing what adjustments might have helped in the opener, than looking ahead to the second game against a more familiar foe.
"We've played against more of the European teams," Ryan said. "North Korea is a very unique team. I don't think there is another team in the world that can run -- you usually say from 18 to 18; with North Korea it's from the 6-box to the 6-box, in terms of the mobility of the whole team."
Against a Swedish team that isn't as quick as North Korea, but which is bigger and more physical, Ryan is likely to return to a 4-3-3 formation after going with a 3-4-3 in the opener. That shift wouldn't necessitate any personnel changes, with Stephanie Lopez moving from the midfield back to her more familiar haunts at outside back.
"It's just a different mentality, to be on the ball more," Lopez said of playing in the middle of the 3-4-3. "As a back, anything you do offensively getting forward is a bonus, but as a midfielder, it's kind of a necessity. And I think that was a hard transition for me mentally, to really see how much I was needed. ... So it was a hard transition, a lot of space to cover."
Up top, Abby Wambach will be ready to go despite needing 11 stitches to close the gash on her head during the second half of Tuesday's game, as well as the injured toe that she has been getting shots to numb. And after scoring the tying goal against North Korea, her second tally in as many games, Heather O'Reilly appears the favorite to start alongside Wambach and Kristine Lilly, although Lindsay Tarpley's presence as one of two players made available to the media on Thursday fueled speculation that Ryan might start her in place of O'Reilly or Carli Lloyd in expectation of a slower pace of play.
Goalkeeper Hope Solo will start against Sweden, Ryan indicated. North Korea's first goal came when a shot from outside the 18-yard box slipped through Solo's hands on a soggy night in Chengdu, but she got the United States out of number of jams throughout the match, including an acrobatic diving save in extra time of the second half that preserved the tie.
"Obviously she knows the ball that went through her hands was a mistake," Ryan said. "But I think this is the kind experience that makes a young player a great player. We haven't had many changes in goal over the past years. Now Hope is our goalkeeper. And this is the time, you put them in this cauldron, and it makes a player great."
A pair of opening draws in Group B means all four teams still control their destinies, but that also means all four teams have little margin for error.
"We both know this game will probably determine the next round," Ryan said. "So we know that Sweden is going to come with their best game, and we're going to come with our best game."
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's soccer coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.