The preliminaries are over, the safety net removed and the U.S. WNT begins the true defense of its three consecutive Gold Medals and the 2015 World Cup Friday at noon when it faces Sweden.
Despite topping the group in the preliminaries the Americans failed to inspire in three opening round matches, struggling against France in 1-0 win and settling for a tie against Colombia with Hope Solo playing the unfamiliar role of goat, and not in the Greatest Of All Time sense.
With former U.S. coach Pia Sundhage at the helm, Sweden played the Americans to a 0-0 tie in the 2015 World Cup in Canada before being eliminated in the Round of 16 in a 4-1 loss to Germany.
But even if the defending champions have appeared vulnerable in the early stages in Brazil, Sweden hardly has the look of a team ready to end the Americans World Cup/Olympic double hopes.
Sundhage’s side posted a 1-1-1 mark in Group play, only qualifying for the quarters as a third place team. Sweden defeated South Africa 1-0 in its first game, was hammered 5-1 by the host nation in game two, and rebounded to tie China 0-0.
This is a team that the U.S. should beat but Jill Ellis’ team enters knockout play with concerns in two areas, Solo’s ability to bounce back and the team’s ability to defend set pieces.
It is easy to predict that Solo, with all of her experience and talent, will come back strong after that brutal game on Tuesday against Colombia when she was beaten twice on free kicks that simply should have been saved.
And so, I predict that the world’s top netminder will come back in top form, but what if she doesn’t?
The other area of concern for U.S. coaches, players, and fans ahead of Friday’s quarterfinals will be defending those set pieces. The U.S. looked extremely shaky on restarts in group play, especially but not only against France and towering center back Wendie Renard.
The return to action of Julie Johnston will be welcome (assuming her good health) and should help in this area. JJ has formed a solid bond with Becky Sauerbrunn and the duo’s communication could go a long way toward tightening things up on set pieces.
Beyond that, Ellis has some lineup decisions to make. Ali Krieger got the nod at right fullback versus Colombia with Kelly O’Hara taking Meghan Klingenberg’s place on the left but expect the see Klingenberg versus Sweden, reuniting the regular U.S. back four.
Ellis has moved the team into a 4-2-3-1 from its 4-3-3 which allows Carli Lloyd to operate as a de facto withdrawn forward behind Alex Morgan. The U.S. has struggled to create in this Olympic Games, with only Tobin Heath consistently providing quality service.
Mallory Pugh and Crystal Dunn scored the U.S. goals versus Colombia and both should be in the lineup, but is there room? And in the middle of the park Morgan Brian will start but who plays alongside her?
Allie Long played the first two games there, Lindsey Horan went versus Colombia. Long will likely be returned to that spot but I wouldn’t mind seeing Horan reclaim the starting position that Ellis handed to Long as the Olympics began.
Morgan will be expected to start and she has been good at times, but Dunn looks like the more dangerous player right now. Might Ellis opt for Dunn over Morgan?
I can’t see it happening, not against Sweden.
Megan Rapinoe got the start against Colombia and she showed some good signs but the gifted playmaker didn’t show that she can be counted on to go 90 minutes in the cauldron of the Olympics. That still leaves Rapinoe available off the bench where she can be a dangerous option.
It should all add up to a victory for the U.S. and even with Sweden liable to bunker in, expect the Americans to eventually break through and come away with a hard fought 2-0 victory.
In the other quarterfinals matches, Brazil should be too much for Australia (9pm e.t.), I expect Germany to get by China (3pm e.t.), and in what should be a good one, look for France to upend Canada, the lone team to complete group play unbeaten and untied.