The real tournament now begins. With the group stage behind them, the U.S. women’s national team advances to quarterfinals where they will face Sweden in their first win-or-go-home match of Rio 2016.
It’s a match that comes with plenty of storylines — Sweden’s coach, Pia Sundhage, was the USWNT’s coach when they won gold in Beijing 2008 and London 2012. But the even bigger talking point heading into the game is the USWNT’s uncharacteristic draw to Colombia to close out the group stage.
Midfielder Carli Lloyd has a message for American fans, though.
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“Everyone needs to take a deep breath and relax,” she said from Brasilia on Thursday. “We tied against Colombia, but it’s all good. I think it will motivate us even more.”
Here is a look at the next step in the USA’s quest for a fourth Olympic gold medal:
Quarterfinal round: USWNT vs. Sweden, Friday at 12 p.m. ET (stream)
USWNT roster notes: It appears that everyone is healthy and ready to go. Coach Jill Ellis rested a batch of players in the USA’s final group game against Colombia, so her preferred starting lineup should be ready to go. Ellis has not disclosed the progress of center-back Julie Johnston, but given how minor Ellis has said her injury is, it seems like a good bet she will be back for the knockout stage.
Megan Rapinoe made her debut in this tournament and played her first game minutes since last winter against Colombia. However, it doesn’t look like she is a 90-minute player yet, and Ellis’ choice to start Rapinoe for only 30 minutes before using a substitution looked like poor game management. If we see Rapinoe vs. Sweden, it should be as a late substitute.
Defender Ali Krieger earned a yellow card against Colombia. If she gets another, she could be suspended for the following match, but it seems like Krieger will not start again as Meghan Klingenberg resumes her fullback role. Crystal Dunn also has a yellow card.
USWNT projected XI:
Ellis favored heavy squad rotation against Colombia and, although the U.S. did overall play better than Colombia, there was still a drop-off in quality a bit. Ellis did that so her preferred starting group could be ready to go full throttle against Sweden. That is why you should expect to see several changes from the lineup that started against Colombia.
That means that Tobin Heath and Allie Long will likely resume their starting roles on the left flank and central midfield, respectively. They have been two of the USA’s best players on the field so far.
It may also mean that Mallory Pugh returns to the starting lineup on the right flank. It’s a bit difficult to think about Crystal Dunn in terms of being a bench player — she has loads of speed and anytime she gets near goal, she is a threat. But Sweden will probably bunker and sit deep, meaning that racing in behind their defense won’t work. The U.S. will need to methodically break them down and attack from the flanks, and Pugh’s crossing and distribution from wide spaces are both very good. Dunn’s yellow card may also be a factor.
What to know about Sweden: As mentioned, Sundhage faces her former team, but it may not mean as much as people think. The truth is, the team the U.S. has now is very different than the one Sundhage led to Olympic gold four years ago. The advantage may go the other way, with the USWNT knowing Sundhage’s coaching tendencies.
Sweden looked very poor in the Women’s World Cup last year, conceding the most goals in their group and exiting in the first knockout round — but their best match of the entire tournament came against the U.S., a 0-0 draw in the group stage. Ellis said the reason for that is Sweden plays more conservatively when facing the USA.
“They will park the bus,” Ellis told reporters on Thursday. “They will sit as low as they possibly can and then look to transition [on counterattacks].”
On Thursday, Sundhage admitted Sweden struggled last summer, but she thinks she has fixed it with a switch to a 4-3-3 formation in the attack that transitions to a stout 4-5-1 in defending.
Sweden has a slight advantage in that they will not travel at all, having played their last group game in the same venue as Friday’s quarterfinal. But it’s not an advantage that can wipe out other big factors, Sundhage said.
“At the end of the day, it’s all about the quality of the teams, the tactics and a little bit of luck,” she said.
Projected outcome: The U.S. may have stumbled a bit against Colombia, but if the 2015 Women’s World Cup taught us anything, it’s that the U.S. can start slow and build momentum as they go. They weren’t at their best in the group stage of this Olympics, but they’d argue that this tournament is about peaking at the right time.
We think the U.S. may still under-perform as they gain steam, but will get the job done for a 1-0 win.