Before they can kill off the group of death, the United States women's soccer team will first have to outwit an old friend.
In their opening game of the 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup, the U.S. overcame a nervous start to defeat a lively, dangerous Australia team 3-1 in Winnipeg, Manitoba. With the opener out of the way and the jitters hopefully gone, the Americans can now turn their attention to taking top spot in Group D, which is undoubtedly the toughest of the tournament.
Standing in their way will be the imposing figure of Sweden, the No. 5-ranked side in the world. The game will serve as a stiff challenge, and not just because the Swedes beat the U.S. in the group stage four years ago. Even more worrisome for the Yanks is the fact that a certain Pia Sundhage will take charge of the opposition.
That name should sound familiar even to casual American soccer fans. Sundhage, a legendary figure in the women's game as both a player and coach, led the U.S. program from 2008 to 2012, guiding the Yanks to two gold medals and the 2011 World Cup final.
Her presence in Sweden's technical area will undoubtedly give the Europeans an advantage due to her knowledge of the American players and setup. Not only did Sundhage coach several of the current U.S. players, but the team's current coach, Jill Ellis, also served as her assistant for part of her tenure.
It's a tricky spot for both the U.S. and Ellis, especially because of the timing. Despite winning their first game by a convincing score, the second-ranked Americans were often unconvincing against No. 10 Australia. The Matildas dominated most, if not all of the first half and were genuinely unlucky not to be leading at halftime.
Part of the problem could have been first-match jitters, though that didn't seem to affect the Australians, who are, on average, younger than the Americans (the U.S. has the oldest squad in the tournament, per Michael Lewis of Newsday). But additional concerns involved tactics and formation.
With two attack-minded players—Carli Lloyd and Lauren Holiday—paired in central midfield, the U.S. struggled to fill gaps and close down Australia's speedy attackers. And with a strategy that mostly involved lumping the ball forward to Abby Wambach, they failed to create chances for much of the first 45 minutes.
All of those problems are ultimately Ellis' responsibility. As a coach already living in the shadow of her successful predecessor, Ellis will be facing extra pressure to make sure her team is fully prepared to take on Sweden and Sundhage.
Writing at Yahoo Sports, Eric Adelson presented a similar argument:
Traditional greatness buys you untraditional pressure.
That pressure has now arrived, ushered in by a middling opening-match performance and the long shadow of Sundhage showing up in the team's second game. Even after Monday's match, defender Meghan Klingenberg lit up at the thought of the next tilt, calling it a "bragging rights" game. A win on Friday would go a long way toward keeping the wolves at bay, as that would keep the Americans atop the Group of Death and put Sweden in peril. A loss, however, would bring an entirely new round of criticism for Ellis and a new halo over Sundhage's head.
Not that Ellis is admitting anything of the sort.
“For me, all I do is focus on my players and my team and our preparation,” the coach said Wednesday, per Jeff Kassouf of NBC Sports' Pro Soccer Talk. “That’s really kind of where my mind is at, so I think I’ve made it pretty clear that distractions don’t really creep into my mind when I’m trying to prepare my players and my team for the game.”
Ellis' sentiments came in response to questions over Sundhage's comments published this week in an interview with Sam Borden of the New York Times. Some of the words were less than complimentary, with Sundhage saying the team's makeup was "so delicate, so delicate."
The 35-year-old Wambach would be a substitute if Sundhage still coached the team, "the best sub ever," in Sundhage's words. "But a sub." Lloyd was a "challenge to coach," especially when she felt the coaches had lost faith in her. Managing controversial goalkeeper Hope Solo, perhaps not surprisingly, was even more difficult for Sundhage, “especially when it comes to trouble."
Because of Sundhage's deep knowledge of the players and team, we have little reason to dispute those comments. But because of the timing, we can perhaps take them as a bit of gamesmanship on the Swede's part. With such a big match coming up, perhaps the former U.S. coach was more forthright in her comments, and sharper with her criticisms, than she would have been otherwise.
Even so, U.S. midfielder Tobin Heath only had kind words for Sundhage. "I love Pia," Heath said, per Martin Rogers at USA Today. "I loved my time with her. We had a good run and we were very successful with her. She is going to be super familiar with us, that's why we're going to have to be so good (on Friday)."
That last part is the most important. After all the back and forth, Sweden and the U.S. will play a crucial match on Friday in Winnipeg. Following a disappointing draw against Nigeria in their opener, the Swedes will be desperate to take the full three points against the Group D leaders.
A U.S. win, on the other hand, would all but clinch first place in the group with one game to spare. The group stage has only just begun, but the stakes are already high in the group of death.