The United States went up against Sweden and former head coach Pia Sundhage again on Friday, the third time in three years the countries have met. This time, however, the stakes were raised, the game being in the World Cup as opposed to the mildly competitive Algarve Cup, but the match looked just the same.
The teams sent out matching 4-4-2 formations and essentially played to a tactical stalemate. It was an approach that generally nullified the advantages either team had, leaving both teams to rely on will, luck or fortune to put them on top. It was the same match we’ve seen from these teams every other time they’ve met since Sundhage left the U.S. to manage her home nation.
It was an entirely unsurprising 90 minutes. And that’s not an especially good thing for the Americans.
The U.S. is a more talented team than Sweden. That’s not an insult to the Swedes, who are very good and every bit deserving of their No. 5 world ranking, but there may not be a team in the world more talented than the U.S. They have a slew of tremendous strikers, Carli Lloyd and Lauren Holiday are two of the best midfielders in the world and Hope Solo is as good of a goalkeeper as you will find. And Sweden entirely neutralized that team because its talent became irrelevant.
The U.S. struggled to find space, leaving Megan Rapinoe switches from left-to-right as the most inspiring play the team had. Sydney Leroux’s pace was a non-factor and star forward Alex Morgan getting cleaned out late provided her most memorable moment off the bench. Lloyd and Holiday failed to create much, and it was only in defense that the team really shined. All that talent and potential was erased by clashing tactics that saw both teams in the same spaces, doing all the same things.
The best source of chances from either team came on set pieces, from which both teams nearly scored. Only some last ditch defending and Lloyd missing a header by inches kept the Americans from getting on the scoreboard, but the Swedes were denied by Meghan Klingenberg’s header off the line and the crossbar in the second half. Ultimately, Sweden came closest to breaking through.
The match ended up a coin flip, one where the coin stood on its side. Both teams had chances. A bit of luck could have turned the match in either team’s way. And therein lies the problem for the U.S.
If you’re the more talented team, you don’t want to end up in a coin flip. You should be able to exploit that advantage and dictate the match. Your players should shine, and more times than not, should come out on top. But that didn’t happen. Sweden and Sundhage ensured it.
To evaluate the U.S. simply based on talent is silly. Under Jill Ellis, the U.S. has not come close to playing as well as their talent suggests. It’s the reason we’ve seen the U.S. and Sweden play this match before. To cite style, formation, or lineup choices to complain about it now is a waste.
The U.S. played fine against Sweden, if you look at the last year and grade the Americans on that curve. The way they played, especially with their defense playing stupendously, is good enough to win the World Cup. It won’t make them the favorites, and winning the competition require a bit of luck, but it can happen.
Just because they’re not as good as their talent would indicate doesn’t mean that they’re not good. They are, and we knew that, just like we knew the U.S. and Sweden would play to the stalemate they did.