Sports

Not Again

The USWNT’s win over Sweden shows just how much it’s evolved since its loss at the 2016 Olympics.

Crystal Dunn chases down the ball during Thursday's match.
Crystal Dunn chases down the ball during Thursday’s match.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Martin Rose/Getty Images.

For coach Jill Ellis and the U.S. women’s national team, Thursday’s comfortable 2–0 win over Sweden was mission accomplished.

From a certain point of view, everything the U.S. has done since losing on penalties to an ultradefensive Sweden in the quarterfinals of the 2016 Olympics has been preparation for Thursday’s game. Three years of friendlies and SheBelieves Cups, of roster churn and positional experimentation, even its World Cup warmups against Thailand and Chile—it’s all been the equivalent of an extended training montage leading into this rematch.

No one had ever knocked the United States out of a major tournament so early, and Ellis seemed determined that no one would be able to do it again. So much of her experimentation— both moves that stuck (Crystal Dunn at left back) and ones that didn’t (Mallory Pugh in central midfield)—seemed designed to load the field with enough attacking players to bust the stoutest of bunkers. To Ellis, all the world’s a siege, and all the women in her lineup merely pliers with which to pull apart opposing defenses.

Except Sweden didn’t bunker. While Ellis has spent the past three years tinkering and assembling her roster, the rest of the world has changed too. Sweden head coach Peter Gerhardsson either suspected that his team couldn’t hold up against the U.S. onslaught or thought he might catch the U.S. off guard if his team pressed aggressively from the start, charging after the ball to try to win it before the U.S. could get it to its attackers.

The gambit failed. By stocking her squad with players comfortable on the ball, Ellis also prepared her team to beat an opposing press. Lindsey Horan had no trouble shielding and turning an aggressive defender. Rose Lavelle turned the ball over a couple of times early, then rebounded to become the most influential American player of the half. Midfielder Sam Mewis, starting for an injured Julie Ertz, seemed to pick up on what this new game would require the quickest. Mewis was constantly finding space between the pressing Swedish front line and its retreating defenders, and she inspired a million “How is she not a starter?” reactions with her pinpoint switches from center midfield, including one to Alex Morgan that wrong-footed a defender from 30 yards away. Mewis’ backheel nutmeg assist on Horan’s opening goal was an all-timer of a “Wait, did she mean to do that?” play.

Even with Sweden constantly nipping at their heels, the American midfielders rarely settled for the easy pass, instead looking to turn upfield and play it forward. The only part of the U.S. team that failed to click was its finishing. The Americans attempted 16 shots but only put four on frame. No great loss. Sweden couldn’t play for a draw and penalty kicks this time; it needed to win the match to beat the U.S. to the top of Group F. The Swedes never looked likely to get two after Horan scored in the third minute, even with the Americans playing out the second half on cruise control.

With potentially four games left in their tournament, it’s unlikely Ellis and the U.S. are going to hang a banner for a group stage win, even one that doubles as sweet revenge. But the team can take some pride in the fact its extended preparations have already borne fruit. The sport is constantly evolving, but in this tournament everyone is once again trying to keep up with the USWNT.