A year ago, the United States women’s soccer team began the World Cup in stuttering fashion, leading to criticisms aplenty and severe questions over whether it was capable of taking home the trophy. Just a couple of weeks later, Carli Lloyd and co were lifting the cup after an emphatic victory in the final. And Lloyd, who etched her name into soccer history with a hat-trick in that final against Japan, is backing her team to come up with the goods when it matters most once again at the Olympics.
The performances in the group stage in Brazil have not been as concerning as they were in the World Cup, yet they have not been the all-conquering displays many expected of a team that has only gotten better in the past year. A professional 2-0 win over New Zealand was followed by a 1-0 win over France in which the U.S. had survived plenty of pressure thanks in large part to the performance of Hope Solo. But the veteran goalkeeper coughed up two rare errors against Colombia in the final round of group matches as Jill Ellis’ side was held to a 2-2 draw.
The U.S. still topped its group to set up a quarterfinal meeting with Sweden in Brasilia on Friday. And Lloyd, now the team captain, insists that the team will shake off its disappointment to deliver in the knockout phase as it goes in search of a fourth consecutive gold medal.
“The objective was made; we came top of the group,” she said after the draw with Colombia. “We as athletes, we always want to perform well, every single game, but reality is that it’s not possible. I look at this as a positive, as something that we can use to motivate ourselves. We know we can be better. We have to move on and now it’s do-or-die time, one game at a time. We’ll be ready and fired up.
“As a player, you expect every tournament to go the same from beginning to end, but that doesn’t happen. Every journey is different and this just happened to be our third game of the tournament. At the end of the day, you find something positive to move on from. I know this team we’ll be ready to fight and ready to play next game.”
It would certainly be unwise to read too much into the performance against Colombia. With her team already guaranteed a spot in the quarterfinals, Ellis limited Lloyd and striker Alex Morgan to just 45 minutes each, while Julie Johnston, Megan Klingenberg and Tobin Heath all remained on the sidelines but should return to the side on Friday.
The match with Colombia also served the purpose of giving Megan Rapinoe her first minutes since tearing her anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee last December. While the attacking midfielder lasted only 33 minutes, she should now be ready to make an impact off the bench in the knockout rounds.
The USA will, though, be wary of its next opponent. Since Pia Sundhage took charge of her home nation four years ago after leading the U.S. to a second Olympic title, the U.S. has failed to beat Sweden in three attempts. The most recent of those encounters came in last year’s World Cup when the two teams played out a goalless draw.
Yet Sweden has not shown good form thus far at the Olympics. Sundhage’s side scored just two goals in the group phase and one of those came in a 5-1 defeat to host Brazil. Despite going on to pick up four points, a narrow 1-0 win over South Africa and a goalless draw with China did not suggest a team that could deliver Sweden a first medal in the event.
Prediction: The U.S. has certainly not hit the heights it is capable of, but the pressure of knockout soccer is when the experienced players in this team really come to the fore. While it could be tight early on, the U.S. has the decisive quality going forward to get the job done and move onto the semifinals.
Predicted Score: USA 2-0 Sweden
Kickoff Time: 12 p.m. EDT
TV Channel: NBCSN
Live Stream: NBCOlympics.com.