USWNT fail to break Group D rival Sweden, settle for lifeless draw

WINNIPEG, Manitoba —

Two of the best teams in the world battled on the Women’s World Cup stage, but for all the epic overtones, Sweden and the United States had to settle for a scoreless draw.

Maybe it was fitting, given the history and connections between a U.S. team that has seen many of its players play professionally in Sweden and because Pia Sundhage, the Sweden coach, once led the U.S. team to two Olympic gold medals. For Sweden, the single point was better than the alternative. After their draw against Nigeria, Sweden was looking for a clean victory to keep alive their expectation of advancing out of the Group of Death.

For the U.S., three points from a potential win on Friday night would have secured their advancement into the knockout round, but now Jill Ellis’ side will have to wait until the final day of group play on June 16. The U.S. leads the group with four points while Australia collected three points on Friday night with their win over Nigeria. Sweden has two points and Nigeria has one.

But in addition to collecting points, the U.S. and Sweden showdown was also about settling scores between the U.S., ranked No. 2 in the world, and No. 5 Sweden. The U.S. attack, however, was fruitless in its efforts to put together scoring chances. They had very few, needing a slew of late-game substitutions to try and bring about some reward.

U.S. defenders Julie Johnston and Becky Sauerbrunn were dominant in the backline for the U.S. The centerbacks each had several hard slide tackles that cleanly and decisively shut down breakaway plays for Sweden. Johnston’s finest came in the 88th minute as Sweden striker Sofia Jakobsson worked her way around from the outside right corner. It looked as if the Swede was free and en route toward goal, but Johnston blew in to drop Jakobsson and send the ball off for a corner.

As the second half wore on, the more crystallized each play became for both sides, each pressing intensely to score. In the 58th minute, the U.S. found a way to slow down the attack. They worked the ball around for several touches before Press appeared to find a small crack in the backline. However, Press did not get off a good angle and the ball sailed right of the goal.

That brought about the first substitution by USA coach Ellis — Amy Rodriguez in for Morgan Brian in the 59th minute. It was well past the time for the U.S. attack to find another gear. The U.S. immediately put some pressure inside the box when Sydney Leroux headed the ball toward the goal. The ball was deflected off the hand of Swedish defender Nilla Fischer, but there was no call.

After a collision between Carli Lloyd and Jessica Samuelsson resulted in both players dropping to the turf, Lloyd, who had earlier in the game been wearing a protective halo to ward off head injuries, was without her usual spark. Lloyd recovered quickly from the collision, but Samuelsson was immediately escorted off by medical staff with an apparent cut to her head.

Abby Wambach came on in the 68th minute, taking over for Christen Press. She almost connected on a shot in front of the goal in the 72nd minute. Seconds later, on a corner taken by Megan Rapinoe, the U.S. had another chance when Lloyd’s header tested Sweden goalkeeper Hedvig Lindahl, who had to tap the ball up over the crossbar.

Sweden had a huge opportunity off a corner in the 77th minute. Caroline Segerfielded the ball and released what looked to be the first goal of the game. However, Meghan Klingenberg was standing on the goal line and impressively headed the ball off the crossbar and then cleared the rebound out of play. It was an intensely close call, but the fractional difference between a goal and a save was measured by the Hawkeye goal line technology system. Hope Solo slapped her hands together. The U.S. dodged a bullet.

Meghan Klingenberg talked about the game-saving play. 

"That was something we practiced this week," Klingenberg said. "I know that when Hope slides across, I need to tuck in and make sure I’m in position. Luckily I did and I was able to make the play when I needed to."

Ellis made no changes at the half, despite the U.S. attack’s lack of prowess in getting in behind the Sweden defense. U.S. midfielder Brian made great runs with excellent pace on the outside right midfield position to create space for Rapinoe, Lloyd and Press. Press in particular worked effectively inside the middle but was denied several chances by the Swedish backline. Leroux showed great effort to attack the box, but was largely ineffective getting into the right position.

Sweden came into this match desperate for a win and were ready to play after their opening match fiasco against Nigeria. Sweden was leading 2-0 but gave back the lead and had to settle for a 3-3 draw against the Lady Falcons. That result blew the doors off the expectation that the U.S. and Sweden would enter this second group play match each with three points.

Former U.S. coach Tony DiCicco was particularly harsh on Sundhage. "I think (Sweden’s) weakness is defense," DiCicco said. "If you look at Pia’s last five World Cup games, four with the USA and one with Sweden, she’s conceded 10 goals. If I look at Pia, I don’t think she’s a great defensive coach who has been able to put a really good backline together."

But Friday night, Sweden came out and was immediately sharper than they had been against Nigeria, whose team speed quickly caused Sweden to lose their form.

Rapinoe, who scored a pair against Australia and was the class player for the U.S. in that 3-1 opening win, seemed a little eager to duplicate her effort. However, with Press playing up top, Rapinoe wasted a few chances to move the ball into Press, who has developed into creative force. With the score still nil-nil, Rapinoe had a free kick and elected to try and blow the ball over the wall of Swedish defenders. Press was screaming for the ball as Rapinoe released and sent it into the stands.

Caroline Seger promised to do a better job in this game and she was true to her word. The midfielder controlled the pace of action for the Swedes in the U.S. end, and the Swedes collected the first two corner kicks in the game. At 22 minutes in, Seger collected a corner from Lina Nillson, got off an 18-foot shot that was deflected by Leroux. The Swedes thought it was a handball but there was no call.

The American attack had good pace early in the game, but the matchups made for hard-fought battles on both ends. Early on, Press was eager to replicate the goalscoring work she produced in the opener against Australia. On one pass from Morgan Brian, Press had space and tried to juke into position to take a shot, only to find Swedish defender Nilla Fischer there to put a big tackle on her. Press went down hoping for a call from the ref. And when none came, the American Outlaws upped the decibel level with jeers.

This is the fourth consecutive Women’s World Cup where the U.S. have had to go through Sweden. All together, the U.S. and Sweden have now faced off 35 times, and five times in the Women’s World Cup. The U.S. won the first three, but the last time the two sides met in 2011, Sweden handed the U.S. a 2-1 defeat in group play.