The United States women's national team opened the 2014 Algarve Cup with a draw against Japan. The only way to reach the championship match is winning Group B, which means the pressure is already beginning to mount as the Americans prepare to face Sweden.
A win over Denmark, the weakest side in the group, allowed the Swedes to assume a spot atop the table with two matches to go. The top-ranked United States must play better than it did against Japan in order to score a much-needed victory.
The two teams met in the same tournament last year and played to a 1-1 draw. Let's check out all of the important information for the latest meeting along with a preview and prediction for the Group B clash.
Where: Estadio Municipal in Albufeira, Portugal
When: Friday, March 7 at 8:30 a.m. ET (1:30 p.m. GMT)
Watch: British EuroSport 2
Live Stream: Eurosport 2 International
The United States looked like a side playing without its top two strikers against Japan. With Abby Wambach sitting on the sidelines and Alex Morgan recovering from an ankle injury, the Americans struggled to find a finishing touch.
ESPN passed along comments from head coach Tom Sermanni, who talked specifically about failing to take advantage of a couple opportunities after grabbing the 1-0 lead:
I thought we did more than enough to win the game, and we had enough chances to probably win two or three games. But it's the classic tale that if you don't take your chances when the game is at one-nil. It's always very dangerous, particularly when you are playing quality opposition. One free kick, which was a bit questionable, and suddenly the score is one-all.
The Americans controlled the pace of play and were able to generate 20 shots. Sermanni is right in saying on another day, when the finishing was more crisp, the team had enough chances to win the game handily. That wasn't the case against Japan.
Even when the United States did get on the scoreboard, it wasn't a typical goal during the run of play. Sydney Leroux took advantage of an inexperienced international goalkeeper in Erina Yamane, who took an extra touch in the box, and the American striker blocked her clearing attempt into the net.
Japan eventually capitalized on all the missed opportunities by leveling the match inside the final 10 minutes. Aya Miyama deserves credit for striking a nice free kick from over 30 yards out, but it's a shot Hope Solo will stop a majority of the time.
Solo took a few false steps to the right, however, and couldn't recover. She lunged back in the opposite direction, but her touch wasn't enough to keep it out of the net. The Americans tried to push forward in the final moments to grab the three points back but couldn't convert.
Rachael Stack of Sports International magazine summed up the performance:
It will be interesting to see what changes Sermanni makes against Sweden.
Abby Wambach returning to her usual spot atop the formation to serve as the main target moving forward would be the most obvious option. Her absence was noticeable against Japan, especially on set pieces, where her size is normally a major advantage.
If Wambach draws the start, it means Sydney Leroux and Christen Press would vie for the other forward spot, or Sermanni could opt for a more aggressive 4-3-3 formation. That would help as the team tries to rejuvenate the attack.
Aside from the strikers, the other player who needs to showcase better form in the second match is Megan Rapinoe. The playmaking midfielder wasn't at the top of her game against Japan, which also played a role in the lack of goals.
After watching the United States' first match, Sweden will probably employ a similar strategy to Japan. Keep extra numbers back to protect the box and force the Americans to shoot from low-percentage areas. Then use the counterattack to move forward.
The budding forward tandem of Kosovare Asllani and Elin Rubensson, who each scored in the opener, will test the U.S. back line with pace. Lotta Schelin also remains in the mix after nearly 130 international matches and over 60 goals.
In the end, the bottom line remains the same for the United States. If it plays up to its a potential, it's a match where three points should be expected. But given the quick turnaround after a lackluster performance in the final third, there are no guarantees.
Just like the opener, expect a hard-fought match that goes down to the final minutes. The Americans should bounce back with a better showing on the attack, and that will be the difference in a narrow win.
Prediction: United States 2, Sweden 1