LE HAVRE, France — Sweden goalkeeper Hedvig Lindahl does not fear the United States women’s soccer team. After all, she was in goal when her team knocked the Americans out of the 2016 Olympics in the quarterfinal round. It was their earliest exit ever at a major tournament, and the defeat still resonates with, and motivates, the United States team.
So Lindahl smiled knowingly when asked whether the Americans would try to make a statement on Thursday in the World Cup, when the teams meet in one of the final games in group play. Lindahl said she was convinced the Americans would be determined “to put us in our place.”
“I read something that the loss in the Olympics really affected them,” Lindahl said Wednesday. “They want to show they’ve changed since then.”
It doesn’t really matter that both teams are 2-0 at the World Cup and have clinched berths in the round of 16. The United States, in addition to winning the group, wants to show that it is the best team in the tournament. After two breezy wins, in which all 20 field players saw action, the Americans should get a clearer indication of their title chances against Sweden.
In the Olympic loss three years ago, the Americans learned that they couldn’t simply rely on their superior skill and set game plan. Though the United States dominated possession, Sweden absorbed the pressure and bunkered on defense to compress space and limit opportunities. After a 1-1 draw, Sweden advanced on penalty kicks.
That match changed the direction of the American team in terms of both personnel and tactics. Afterward, goalkeeper Hope Solo infamously called the Swedes “a bunch of cowards” for hunkering down on defense and showing little interest in trading shots with the Americans. That comment, and several incidents that had preceded it, effectively ended Solo’s national team career.
In previous Olympics and World Cups, the Americans have had a world class keeper in goal; now they have Alyssa Naeher, a World Cup rookie. After a 13-0 rout over Thailand and a 3-0 win against Chile, Naeher will get her first major test against Sweden.
After the 2016 loss to Sweden, Coach Jill Ellis altered the way the U.S. team plays, switching to a more attacking formation. If an opponent denies the Americans space, they create it.
“For me, it was an awareness of saying, ‘Hey, we need to be able to break teams down in multiple ways,’” Ellis said. “That’s what this team has: the capacity to play between the lines, over the lines. It’s a multidimensional team.”
As much as the Americans want to focus on the present, the team has historically used failure as fuel. A loss to Norway in the 1995 World Cup semifinals was followed by a gold medal in the 1996 Olympics. A loss to Japan in the 2011 World Cup final led to a dominant performance against many of the same players in the 2015 title game.
Midfielder Julie Ertz said she had kept a photograph from the 2016 Olympic defeat as the screen saver on her phone. Forward Christen Press, who missed the final United States penalty kick in the shootout that day, said Wednesday that she had watched parts of that loss.
“The biggest lesson for me was about character,” Press said. “When I look back on my career, all the moments I’m most proud of have come after failure. That’s the easiest one to point at and look at that clear failure and then evaluate how I did responding to it.”
. “When small failures happen day to day,” she added, “I can look back at moments like that and know that I can deal with it.”
That game changed Sweden’s mind-set as well. Now the Swedes know they can beat the Americans. Sweden long has been a power, but it has been thwarted by its American rival throughout the World Cup’s history. No other teams have met more often in the tournament, and this is the fifth time they have been placed in the same group.
With a win or draw Thursday, the Americans would finish first in the group and play Spain in the round of 16. A potential showdown against host France looms after that in the quarterfinals. The team that finishes second in the group would presumably have an easier road, avoiding France. But neither team was willing to concede any ground on Wednesday.
“I think it’s in our team’s DNA to want to win and do really well,” United States defender Abby Dahlkemper said Tuesday.
Sweden’s coach, Peter Gerhardsson, said avoiding France was not a goal.
“You can only play football in one way,” Gerhardsson said. “Even if you’re a 5- or 6-year old, you want to win. You want to win it.”