June 19-- LE HAVRE, France-The U.S. is on to the knockout stage of the Women's World Cup no matter what happens in its final group-stage match Thursday in this port city on the English Channel.
Same with Sweden, the Americans' opponent. But that doesn't mean there's nothing to play for-or not to play for, depending upon how such matters are viewed.
With a win or draw, the U.S. wins the group and moves into the top half of the tournament bracket with England, France and Australia, who are all ranked among the top six in the world.
Lose and it drops in the bottom half with Italy, Japan and Germany, just one of which is ranked higher than seventh, clearing a far easier path to the semifinals.
This might be a case in which a loss is actually a win, right? Well, not in the Americans' camp.
"It's in our team's DNA to want to win and do really well," defender Abby Dahlkemper said. "Entering this tournament it's just been 110% focused on the next game. We have Sweden and we want to progress and keep getting better."
Her coach agreed.
"We want to win every game. That's where we're at and that's what we want to do," said Jill Ellis, who has never lost a World Cup match as manager. "Deciding to come second or manipulate a score, that can be dangerous. The draw is what it is and we navigate whoever is in front of us."
Finishing first would send the U.S. to a round-of-16 meeting with Spain on Monday in Reims. A win there could bring a quarterfinal matchup in Paris with France, the only team to beat the U.S. in the last 23 months. A loss to Sweden would send the U.S. to meet either Canada or the Netherlands, followed by a likely quarterfinal clash with Germany, which hasn't beaten the U.S. in 16 years.
Ellis waved away such speculation.
"Right now the only team that we're concerned about is the team that's right in front of us. And that's Sweden," she said.
The game is arguably the team's most important of the group stage. The U.S. cruised to wins over Thailand and Chile, outscoring them 16-0 while clearing its bench and using all 20 outfield players. Sweden will offer a far sterner challenge, exactly what the Americans need before beginning the unforgiving elimination stage.
"Coming out of the group stage you want to build momentum," Ellis said. "We know we're through to the next round but we really want to sort of fine-tune things that we feel. It's going to a give our players a good test against a good side."
Sweden has long been a thorn in the U.S.' side. Only China and Norway have beaten the Americans more often than Sweden, the only team to defeat the U.S. in 23 World Cup group-stage matches dating to 1991. And the Swedes have lost just one of their last five meetings with the U.S., among them a quarterfinal in the last Olympics where Sweden handed the Americans their earliest elimination from a major tournament.
Many on the U.S. still consider that game a turning point in the team's development. After winning the 2015 World Cup, the team Ellis took to Brazil was one in transition. So when Sweden bunkered in and played for penalty kicks, the U.S. was lost for a response.
"For me, it was an awareness of saying, 'Hey, we've got to be able to break teams down in multiple ways,' " Ellis said. "It can't just be a ball in behind. It can't just be a set piece. It has to be different ways to break teams down."
So Ellis broadened the U.S. attack and changed formations. Her team builds out of the back now, plays wide and pushes down the wings, giving it the ability to strike from all over the field.
"Where the team was then and where we are now is night and day," defender Crystal Dunn said. "It's been three years since then. I don't even think about that game. We're just in a completely different place as a team right now."
Forward Christen Press, who skied her penalty try well over the crossbar to give Sweden the win in Brazil, said that game marked a personal turning point as well.
"Despite the fact it's been three years, you don't forget the taste in your mouth when you fail," she said Wednesday. "There is a little bit of that that will definitely act as motivation. You never want to have that feeling again."
Where the U.S. hasn't been challenged in this World Cup is on defense, with goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher facing just three shots. Sweden, which has seven goals in the tournament (trailing only the U.S. and Australia) is certain to test her.
But Dunn said her teammates won't make it easy.
"For us to throw a game and not want to win right before a knockout round," she said "is crazy."
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