Soccer

TARA SULLIVAN

Before the US women move on, the win over Sweden is worth another look

United States' Megan Rapinoe, left, celebrates after United States' Tobin Heath scored her side's second goal during the Women's World Cup Group F soccer match between the United States and Sweden at the Stade Oceane in Le Havre, France, Thursday, June 20, 2019. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)
christophe ena/AP
Megan Rapinoe celebrates the goal she set up with a corner kick.

Time to turn the page.

The US women’s soccer team closed out its World Cup group play Thursday afternoon with a third consecutive shutout, a 2-0 win over nemesis Sweden that served as the ending to their first chapter in France.

It was an excellent effort, impressive even as it came against a Swedish side that was not quite the challenge it could have been, or would have been at a later, more meaningful point of the tournament. Even in resting some starters and inserting four World Cup first-timers into the lineup, Sweden is a player on the world stage in a way earlier opponents Thailand or Chile are not.

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As US coach Jill Ellis told reporters in France: “We needed this game against a challenging opponent before we left the group. Win, lose, or draw today, I said to the players, ‘Let’s see if we can feel good about the performance.’ That’s the confidence-builder.”

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As good as it was to advance for the first time without surrendering a goal in group play, as good as it was to advance with a new record for most goals in group play (18), I can’t help but remain bothered by the narrative that overshadowed the initial American performance.

The outrage over the 13-0 opening victory over Thailand is tough to forget, and my belief that it was both misguided and misunderstood won’t change. I believe instead it will serve a greater good down the line, inspiring and motivating other countries to invest more money and time into their women’s national teams in the effort to catch up. That’s what the original Dream Teamers did for men’s basketball, with the current international flavor of the NBA more than enough evidence it can happen.

Time will tell.

But you know what I’d much rather remember now anyway? That this team is a joy to watch. It abounds with so much skill and boasts a roster so deep in talent it could field two World Cup teams good enough to challenge for the title.

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The players make open-field passes that are strong and precise, they defend with tenacity and toughness, they are aggressive on offense in finding the goal, and their set pieces are the envy of the soccer world.

As the red-white-and-blue get ready for the knockout rounds, facing Spain Monday at noon in the Round of 16, here are a few of my favorite things I was reminded of during the Sweden game:

  Every touch counts. There was great celebration over Lindsey Horan’s finish on a Megan Rapinoe corner kick in the third minute, a goal that built all the lead the US would need and came so early it tilted the action entirely the Americans’ way.

The finish was great, but the start of the sequence, which came about 90 seconds in, was just as important, and easy to overlook.

When Sweden took a throw-in deep in its own side, it was a chance to flip the field. Instead, American midfielder Samantha Mewis stepped in front of her mark and took the ball, soon sending a pass to Horan that would eventually lead to the Rapinoe solo dribbling effort that resulted in the corner kick.

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A simple move from Mewis, but one that mattered as much as any of the passes that followed, and one that represented effort and awareness more than even skill or athletic ability.

  Speed kills. And Rose Lavelle has speed. The midfielder was the best player on the field Thursday, her fast feet a benefit both on the ball and off it.

The 24-year-old was not on the roster that lost to Sweden three years ago in the Olympics, and judging by what we saw Thursday, she might have been the difference. She is a creative attacker and very adept at switching the field, which serves to keep a defense on its heels and not as able to pack it in the way Sweden did in Rio.

Lavelle (left) takes the ball away from Sweden's Amanda Ilestedt and Caroline Seger.
alessandra tarantino/AP
Lavelle (left) takes the ball away from Sweden's Amanda Ilestedt and Caroline Seger.

Lavelle scored twice against Thailand, but it was her performance against Sweden that really stood out.

  Tob-in charge. Forward Tobin Heath remains one of the toughest outs in soccer, fighting every play until the very end. Though her score against Sweden was ultimately changed to an own goal, from the angle Heath took on the ball deep in the right corner of the field, it appeared impossible to aim a shot at the net. But aim it she did, giving the US a 2-0 advantage early in the second half.

When replay showed a slight deflection off a defender’s foot, the credit was changed, but it didn’t change the fact that Heath continues to be one of the Americans’ best weapons.

  The Lloyd effect. Carli Lloyd didn’t score a goal Thursday, but that doesn’t mean her presence wasn’t felt. When she entered to start the second half, who didn’t think, “Goal in 3 . . . 2 . . .”?

I’m not sure I agree with Ellis’s decision to cast the veteran as a super sub, which is how the midfielder was deployed in both the first and third group games and how she is likely to be used going forward until, or unless, the US is knocked out.

Lloyd fights off the challenge of Sweden’s Linda Sembrant.
martin rose/Getty
Lloyd fights off the challenge of Sweden’s Linda Sembrant.

For my money, Lloyd is playing the best soccer of her life, in better shape now than she was in her college days at Rutgers, wiser, too, in how she protects her body on the field. In that way, she reminds me of one of my all-time favorite US players, Michelle Akers, the midfielder who was there from the start.

Akers might long be remembered for ripping out an IV to get back on the field and celebrate with her famous 1999 teammates (she had left the field in the second half with a concussion). But she is most significant for bridging that time from the ’91 champion team, when she won the Golden Boot but returned to home soil to only a handful of fans cheering the win, to the group we know now as the ’99ers, who woke up America when they won it all.

.   .   .

But back to the future, where it’s time to turn the page. If the US advances (as expected) past Spain, it could have to beat host France, England, and Germany to win. Those three are ranked fourth, third, and second in the world by FIFA. Blowouts forgotten; game on.

Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at tara.sullivan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.