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Michelle Kaufman: Never a doubt U.S. women would keep foot on gas in grudge match against Sweden

UPDATED: Thu., June 20, 2019

United States' Kelley O Hara leaps over Sweden's Kosovare Asllani during the Women's World Cup Group F soccer match between Sweden and the United States at Stade Océane, in Le Havre, France, Thursday, June 20, 2019. (Alessandra Tarantino / AP)
United States' Kelley O Hara leaps over Sweden's Kosovare Asllani during the Women's World Cup Group F soccer match between Sweden and the United States at Stade Océane, in Le Havre, France, Thursday, June 20, 2019. (Alessandra Tarantino / AP)
By Michelle Kaufman Tribune News Service

Sandbagging? The U.S. Women’s World Cup team? No way.

Not Thursday. Not ever.

Definitely not against its biggest rival on the world’s biggest stage.

Anybody who wondered whether the United States would ease off against Sweden and accept second place in the group for an easier path in the knockout rounds got their answer in the first three minutes of Thursday’s game.

The Americans came out flying from the opening whistle, strung together pinpoint passes at breakneck pace and wasted no time finding the back of the net. Lindsey Horan slipped behind the Swedish defense and knocked in a Megan Rapinoe corner kick in the third minute. It was the quickest goal to date at this World Cup.

Horan was immediately mobbed by her teammates; and this time, nobody would argue the exuberant celebration was warranted.

They erupted again in the 50th minute when Tobin Heath, the most skillful player on the U.S. team, beat defender Jonna Andersson just outside the 6-yard box, skimmed the ball off Andersson’s foot and into the goal.

The U.S. team held on to win 2-0, finished atop the group and will face Spain on Monday in the Round of 16.

Thursday’s victory surely was extra sweet for the U.S. players because Swedish goalkeeper Hedvig Lindahl had been doing some trash talking.

When you think Sweden, you think ABBA, Ikea, Volvo and meatballs, not trash-talking; but the rivalry between Sweden and the United States is as spicy as it gets in women’s soccer. The teams have met five times in the World Cup, and their match in the 2016 Rio Olympics ended on a sour note.

Hope Solo called the Swedish players “a bunch of cowards” after they hunkered down on defense, packed the back and used defensive tactics to disarm the U.S. attack and boot the Americans from the Olympics in the quarterfinal. It was the earliest U.S. exit from a major tournament, and neither team had forgotten it heading into Thursday’s game.

Several U.S. players said they were eager to erase that bad memory with a win over Sweden, and Lindahl offered the Americans some locker room fodder when she said: “They can play the game in the press area if they want. We want to play in the field, and we’ll see what happens. Let them talk. We will play.”

This time, the Swedes did not hang back. Although they maintained their shape and played organized defense, as they always do, they made plenty of runs and had chances to score. Sofia Jakobsson was especially dangerous, but the U.S. back line fended her off.

It was the first time the U.S. defense was tested this World Cup after a 13-0 rout over Thailand and a 3-0 win over Chile that was not as close as the score indicates. U.S. goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher, who must have been getting bored back there, had to be on her toes against the Swedes. Defenders Becky Sauerbrunn, Abby Dahlkemper, Kelly O’Hara and Crystal Dunn were steady.

But the most impressive group on the field was the U.S. midfield. Sam Mewis, Rose Lavelle and Horan were in sync and razor sharp. Their decision-making and ball distribution were beautiful to watch. Whether on short, quick passes or long balls, they were spot on. Had the forwards made better choices on a few chances, there probably would have been more than two goals scored.

But two was plenty. The U.S. team outscored its first three opponents 18-0, setting a World Cup record for scoring in the group stage.

Now, things will get really interesting. The United States is favored to beat a young Spanish team on Monday, and if that happens, a quarterfinal game against France or Brazil awaits. A very talented England team is also on the U.S. side of the bracket and could face the Americans in the semifinal.

Sweden, meanwhile, faces Canada on Monday. The winner of that game likely gets a weaker-than-usual German team, and either Netherlands, Japan, China or Italy in the semis.

On paper, it looks like Sweden has an easier road to the final than the United States. But the U.S. team is too proud to tank a game, so they’ll happily take Thursday’s win and a challenging path in the knockout rounds. They’re good enough to handle it, and they know it.

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