Can Sweden find their form ahead of this summer’s World Cup?

Lotta Schelin leads a talented Swedish squad but can they pool their resources and make a deep World Cup run?

Andreas Froeberg

It was a thing of beauty — the kind of victory that put an extra glimmer in coach Pia Sundhage’s already twinkling eyes. In the opening game of the 2015 Algarve Cup this March in Portugal, Sweden bounced back from a 0-2 deficit against Germany to score four unanswered goals to trounce the world’s No. 1 team.

Sweden’s two goals from star midfielder Caroline Seger were one thing. The 30-year-old commanded the ball and willed herself and Sweden to score and pull themselves back into the game. However, heads were really turned by the fleet feet of striker Sofia Jakobsson,who blew past Germany and barraged veteran keeper Nadine Angerer. 

At 24 years of age, Jakobsson’s scoring prowess at the Algarve Cup — she was the high scorer of the tournament with four — seemed to hint that, in addition to seasoned stalwarts, Sweden have a few extra pieces of heavy artillery. The likes of which could cause major problems for top teams at the World Cup.

Sweden are anchored by Seger, one of the world’s best holding midfielders. They find themselves upped a big notch in talent in goal with the return to form of Chelsea goalkeeper Lindahl Hedvig after knee problems. They sport veteran defensive midfielder Nilla Fischer, who is thriving as the Swede’s powerful center back. And up front, there’s Lotta Schelin, the Olympique Lyonnais star whose strength and power have prompted some to compare her to Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

But the added firepower of a relative newcomer like Jakobsson, who has 34 caps for the national team, seems a thrilling addition to a Swedish side currently ranked No. 4 in the world. The upset over Germany furthered the narrative that any one of the top teams could claim the coveted cup.

That optimism faded soon after with losses to Brazil and Germany, in a rematch, in the Algarve Cup. That was followed by a 1-3 loss to Switzerland in a friendly.

Sweden, suddenly, were in trouble. The Swiss showed that the way to harm Sweden was to put two players on Seger. That forced Sundhage to change tactics, so after 25 games with 4-1-3-2, the coach told her team to play a more staid 4-4-2 formation.

"We must sit down and analyze the game, talk together and get back to what we are good at. In this game we did not do the job required," a frustrated Caroline Seger said after the loss to Switzerland.

The idea that Sweden was ready to roll into Canada with guns blazing gave way to a more realistic assessment. There’s no doubt they have the talent, but do they have the structure to sustain high-level execution of the game plan Sundhage seeks?

"We lost too much ball, too high up in the plane, we lost many close combat on the center and thus we put the defense in difficult situations," Sundhage lamented.

The idea that Sweden was ready to roll into Canada with guns blazing gave way to a more realistic assessment. There’s no doubt they have the talent, but do they have the structure to sustain high-level execution of the game plan Sundhage seeks?

A few days after the loss to Switzerland, Sweden worked a 3-3 draw vs. Denmark in Stockholm. 

MLS 2016 Season Previews

A draw made worse by a serious knee injury to central midfielder Hanna Folkesson. A torn ACL and surgery will keep her out of the World Cup.

"I am extremely sorry for Hannah’s sake. She missed the European Championship on home turf in 2013 and now also miss the World Cup. We lose a very good player and a fighter, it feels very sad at all ways," Sundhage said.

Still, these setbacks are not likely to define the Swedish women once they arrive in Canada — not with Sundhage at the helm. Even though they have drawn into Group D, already titled the Group of Death, along with the U.S., Australia and Nigeria.

Sundhage knows the U.S. side the best, even though it has been almost three years since she left the U.S. women’s national team to return to Sweden. Sundhage seemed to take special delight in the idea of what Nilla Fischer will be able to do against U.S. striker Abby Wambach, when the two teams meet on June 12th in Winnipeg.

"I love Abby. She is a great player, but against Nilla Fischer, there could be some problems there," Sundhage said with a sneaky smile. Of course, given what could be Wambach’s role as the U.S. super sub, Sundhage may have to wait until deep in the game to see the matchup she’s planning for.

There is a tremendous amount of intrigue to look forward to when it comes to a U.S.-Sweden showdown. Carli Lloyd and Seger will battle in the midfield; Hope Solo and Lotta Schelin are good friends and former teammates; Jakobsson’s speed and ball movement against the power of U.S. defensive wings, Meghan Klingenberg and Ali Krieger.

Sweden is a considerable threat in any international tournament. They have earned 18 wins and 59 points in all their World Cup appearances, putting them fourth on the all-time World Cup ranking behind USA, Germany and Norway.

They were perfect in Group play during the 2011 World Cup in Germany, only being knocked out in a hard-fought match by the eventual winner, Japan. And they took the bronze medal by pulling a minor upset over France.

Sundhage has expressed some misgivings about the lack of time she has to spend with her national team as a group. Unlike the U.S., where she had the players in camps for longer periods of practice, the Swedish players have had to disperse between World Cup training.

"It’s an ongoing discussion whether they should or shouldn’t train more [as a team]. I think they can train a little bit more. I try and inspire them to do. I don’t see them every day. That is very different [from coaching the U.S. national team]. They have club teams and other coaches who tell them what they should or shouldn’t do," Sundhage said.

"But when it comes to the game and the tactics, we have a lot of speed and we do have a star in Lotta Schelin. She’s happy in France at Lyon. We want to continue what we’ve been working on. We have improved our passing game and want to keep the ball a little longer. We do have some good options at crosses," Sundhage said.

No doubt Sundhage will have her side overcome the April hiccups and have the Swedish women back to the kind of form they showed in the opening game of the Algarve Cup. The talent of the Swedish side and their ability to control the ball and play to each other’s impressive strengths is a gift to soccer fans who love to see the game played at its top level. If the Swedes are back to that form come June 12, the U.S. will have to beware.