This post is three days late but better late than never as the saying goes. With the first game jitters out of the way, Winnipeg’s second round of group D matches were always going to be important, perhaps the make or break match for many teams in this World Cup, if not mathematically than in spirit and momentum. Of course the highlight not just of the day but perhaps one of the most anticipated matches of the tournament would be the USA vs Sweden with current Swedish coach Pia Sundhage facing her former team, the United States which she led from 2008 to 2012. As expected, the build up to this match was made more intriguing with Sundhage’s comments about her former players stating the somewhat obvious and often echoed. Sundhage maintained that Hope Solo was one of the most challenging players Sundhage has ever coached, “especially when it comes to trouble,” and that Abby Wambach, now 35, would not be a starter if Sundhage still coached the team. Nothing dishonest nor offensive in these words but a well timed psychological first strike. Current American WNT coach, Jill Ellis, and several USA players downplayed the comments suggesting they represent neither a distraction nor motivation. But when the USA starting XI was announced and Wambach was named to the substitutes bench, one would have to think Sundhage and the Swedes would build confidence from that and take it as a damaging first blow even before the first kick of a ball.
With opening round loss for Australia and a draw for Nigeria, one would expect these teams with everything to play for to put it all out on the line in this match. On the contrary, it was a rather subdued opening with neither team able to take early control of the match. Australia were noticeably less intense with their pressing game than they showed days before against the USA, perhaps an attempt to avoid the same mistake and prevent early burnout?
Ironically, the Nigerian too were noticeably less direct and explosive on the counter attack then they previously showed against Sweden. It was a rather uneventful opening 25 minutes with a few half chances for both sides; the best opportunity coming from a close range Australian free kick but neither side very threatening.
Finally in the 28th minute the Australian’s broke the deadlock. Originating from great pass out of their defensive third, De Vanna made a beautiful run through the middle before being taken down near the top of the eighteen but K. P. Simon was there to pick up the lose ball and send it across the goalkeeper into the far corner.
The remainder of the half continued to be fairly even with both teams missing opportunities. The Australian’s missed an open net opportunity in the 33rd minute after taking too many touches on the ball, something they were guilty of at times against the USA. Australia took the 1-0 lead into half-time but it could as easily have been reversed or a draw.
Half Time: Australia 1 – Nigeria 0
When the teams emerged for the second half, Nigeria began looking more like the team that played Sweden days earlier. Playing their direct brand of football, they were more successful penetrating the Aussie’s final third and creating chances for themselves in the opening 20 minutes of the half but a stingy Aussie defense did well to absorb the pressure.
Once again seemingly out of nowhere, Australia struck again in the 68th minute with their first real opportunity of the half. A cross from the right flank skipped through the 18 to Kerr who did well to lob it over the flat Nigeria defense caught ball watching to you guessed it, K. P. Simon for her second of the match.
After that, the Australian’s confidence grew, they managed their energy reserves better and they saw out the match for the 2-0 win. Despite the scoreline, this was a statistically even and rather uneventful match, not what many expected given what was on the line for both teams. With Nigeria sitting last in their group and the USA up next in their final group match, advancement is looking very unlikely.
USA vs Sweden
Another USA match brought another ruckus capacity crowd in Winnipeg. Coming off a less then impressive opening round win against Australia, the question on everyone’s mind was if the USA could ignite its misfiring offense, even going so far as to sit Abby Wambach.
Through the opening 5 minutes, both teams came out of the gate looking better then they had in their first round matches. Sweden did well to utilize the width of the pitch which allowed them to penetrate the USA final third often but through 20 minutes and after a few half chances for each side, neither team dominated or took control of the match. The Swedes were unfortunate not to be awarded a penalty kick for a very clear “hand to ball” motion for Sydeny Leroux in the penalty area.
The USA was able to pick up the tempo, they enjoyed a prolonged period with more of the ball and were able to push Sweden back forcing them to defend deeper in their half. Sweden remained a serious threat on the counter attack and despite having less of the ball they certainly looked capable of threatening when they did.
The final 5 – 10 minutes of the half saw a return to balance. The teams more or less shared equal possession of the ball and despite not testing Hope Solo, chances created and shots were very close. The USA played a more forward, direct style of play while the Swedes generally took their time to build-up their attacks. Both teams enjoyed periods of dominance but neither team could go into the break with the confidence of know they dominated their opponent; the 0-0 draw meant is was still anyone’s match.
Half Time: USA 0 – Sweden 0
The USA open the second half with a great scoring opportunity. the Swedes adopted a higher more intense press which began to open up the match. After enjoying the better part of the opening 15 minutes, the plucky Swedes just wouldn’t go away and enjoyed a period of betterment of their own in what had become a back and forth affair.
The 68th minute introduction of Wambach had a moment of magic written all over it. After being dubbed a super-sub in the lead up to the match and failing to to crack the starting XI of a World Cup match for only the second time since 2003 could Wambach prove the naysayers wrong and kick start an otherwise rather mundane USA offense.
From the onset of her introduction, Wambach had plenty to say to the referee as she often does and missed a couple of signature headers but still the ebb and flow of the match continued. It wasn’t until the 77th minute when Sweden missed the best goal scoring chance of the match. Sara Seger got on the end of a Swedish corner and send the ball on target, Solo was well beaten with no chance at making the save but the shot was admirably headed onto the cross bar by an American defender spoiling what presented itself the best goal scoring chance of the night.
In the final minutes of the match, Sweden continued to press and recover well while attacking in waves despite failing to test Solo. The sense was that if there was a goal to be had on the night, it was Sweden’s. In the 89th minute Wambach looking to earn her side a PK went down rather theatrically in the penalty area but the referee was have none of it. Wambach is perhaps luck not to have received a caution herself for the dive.
The final whistle blew and the 0-0 draw was in the books. Sweden will be much happier with the point, it keeps them running for advancement and sets up a great final group stage match Australia. The USA will once again be asking questions of their offense. A sound performance defensively, Hope Solo wasn’t tested like she was against the Australian’s but going forward there must be concern among the Americans and their fans as to where the goals are going to come from. There is no question they will easily advance from their group but unless they pick up there offensive play deep progression through the knockout stage is anything but a given.