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The holders have struggled so far and their reign could be about to come to an end.
Anyone who has followed women’s soccer over the last few years knows that it is never advisable to write the USA off.
Four-time world champions overall, the USWNT triumphed in 2015 and 2019 and are now seeking to become the first team to win the tournament three times on the bounce.
You have to go back 12 years to find the last time they lost a World Cup tie and all the way to 2007 for their most recent defeat in 90 minutes in the knockout phase. Put simply, the USA have dominated the women’s game for more than a decade now.
But are we approaching the end of this American era? Soccer is a cyclical sport and no team stays on top forever, so it would not be unusual were the Stars and Stripes to be knocked off their perch this summer.
We have not reached that point just yet, however. The USA are now only the third-favorites to win the tournament with the best online sportsbooks, behind England and Spain. But no one will relish facing a team with such quality and experience in the knockout phase.
At the same time, the USWNT have been underwhelming up to now. A record of one win in three group games is the national team’s worst ever. Vlatko Andonovski’s side beat minnows Vietnam 3-0 on matchday one, but could only tie with both the Netherlands and Portugal.
In the second of those matches, the USA were just one goal away from being eliminated. Had Portugal found the back of the net to win 1-0, the American players would be back home right now. That is how close they came to what would have been a stunning early exit.
As it is, the USA are still alive. Optimists would make the point that tournaments are not won in the group phase and that there is still plenty of time for the Stars and Stripes to hit their stride. But even those with a broadly positive outlook would admit that a huge improvement is needed.
Sweden would not have expected to finish top of Group G and then be ‘rewarded’ with a last-16 tie against the reigning champions. But nor will they fear the USA, especially as confidence within their camp is high after the group stage.
Only Japan ended the first phase of the tournament with a better record than Sweden, who collected nine points and finished with a goal difference of +8. A last-minute winner saw them past South Africa in a 2-1 win on matchday one, before they thumped Italy 5-0 a few days on.
Sweden made sure of their first-place finish on Wednesday, beating Argentina 2-0 to maintain their 100 percent record in New Zealand (both they and the USA will play in Australia for the first time this tournament on Sunday).
This Swedish side has been steadily progressing in recent years. They reached the last four of the World Cup four years ago, then finished second at the Olympics in 2021. Euro 2022 brought another semi-final berth, although they were thrashed 4-0 by hosts England on that occasion.
Like several other managers at this World Cup, Peter Gerhardsson had injuries to contend with in the build-up. But Sweden were superb in the group stage and they will not be easy opponents for the USA in this crunch clash at the Melbourne Rectangular Stadium.
Andonovski will have spent the last few days trying to rally his troops ahead of this match. He will no doubt have told his players to prove everyone wrong after the harsh reviews of the team’s performances in the group stage.
Whether or not that will be enough remains to be seen. The USWNT have been lackluster so far, with a notable lack of fluidity in possession. They have only conceded one goal up to now, but Sweden’s attack will cause them problems.
This game could be won or lost in the center of the park. That is an area of the pitch the USA have struggled in, with Portugal and the Netherlands both able to disrupt their possession play. Sweden will look to do similar.
The USA remain an excellent team on their day, but their displays in 2023 have left a lot to be desired. At the odds available and given the talent within their squad, it is worth backing Sweden to come out on top this weekend.
The Scandinavians demonstrated their credentials in the group stage, but a win here would be one of the biggest in the history of their national team.
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Greg Lea is a freelance soccer journalist from London. He is the former editor of The Set Pieces, and has contributed to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, and ESPN. A Crystal Palace fan, he is a long-time subscriber to the belief that it's the taking part that counts. Email: [email protected]More info on Greg Lea
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