CHENGDU, China &
The U.S. women's national soccer team has not enjoyed the smoothest start to this World Cup, having labored to earn a tie in its opener and, for 15 troubling minutes Friday, looking as though its intended long-term stay in China might be cut short.
The Americans had not played terribly, just not up to the standard they had set over the past 34 months &
47 consecutive games leading up to the World Cup in which the U.S. team had not lost in regulation time. Still, something wasn't right and, without a quick solution, the Americans would be in danger of falling to the bottom of their first-round group with only one match remaining.
The answer: pound long balls into the penalty area until, inevitably, Sweden goalkeeper Hedvig Lindahl made a game-altering mistake and, most importantly, ensure that Abby Wambach was provided a steady stream of scoring opportunities.
The U.S. team accomplished both of those tasks and, with a 2-0 victory over the Swedes on the strength of Wambach's two goals, found itself on the brink of securing a quarterfinal berth.
The Americans (1-0-1, four points) are tied for first place with North Korea, which kept pace with a 2-0 triumph over Nigeria in the second match of the doubleheader before 35,600 at Chengdu Sports Center Stadium. The United States will need just a tie against the African champion Nigeria Tuesday in Shanghai to guarantee advancement. At 0-1-1, Sweden, the 2003 runner-up, will probably need to beat the North Koreans by at least two goals to stay alive.
"I have so much confidence that our team has everything it needs to win this World Cup," U.S. Coach Greg Ryan said. "We also know it's a very difficult road and there are many great teams in our path."
Drawn into the most difficult first-round group, the Americans figured to encounter resistance despite their No. — world ranking. But after scrambling to earn a tie with North Korea, they found themselves in urgent need of victory Friday on a cloudless afternoon in the Sichuan capital.
Sweden earned a corner kick a few seconds into the match, then another in the second minute. And more in the third and fourth minutes. The Americans struggled to keep pace and were forced to initiate their attack from deep in their own end. "For the first 30 minutes," Sweden Coach Thomas Dennerby said, "the Swedish tactics were perfect."
Said U.S. midfielder Lori Chalupny: "Not exactly the way you want to start a match. It took some of the leadership on the team to calm us down and to weather that storm, and once we got through that, we started building some confidence."
The Americans also concluded that Sweden's last line of defense, namely Lindahl, had cracks.
"We're always going to try to test the goalkeeper and see if they are going to get rattled or not, and she kind of got rattled and we kind of knew it," defender Kate Markgraf said. "So it was like, 'Okay, let's keep trying those balls.' It was a default for us: If we had pressure and we couldn't find anyone, we would launch it right at her."
Cat Whitehill was the first to try, booming a 45-yard free kick that drifted on Lindahl and forced her to backpedal and make a desperate leaping touch. It was a preview of things to come from the unsure goalie.
Late in the half, with the momentum shifting in the U.S. team's favor after its clumsy start, Markgraf drove a long ball into the penalty area that Lindahl misjudged and allowed to bounce over her head and toward the vacant net. As Chalupny prepared to guide it in, Stina Segerstrom slid for the ball, taking down the U.S. player and drawing a whistle from referee Gyoengyi Gaal.
Up stepped Wambach, who easily converted the penalty kick into the left corner.
Wambach's second goal &
and 80th in just 98 international appearances since joining the national team five years ago &
came 13 minutes into the second half on a sequence that displayed why she is perhaps the most feared striker in the world.
Team captain Kristine Lilly lifted an exquisite ball from the left sideline toward Wambach, who made her run past two defenders and met the pass in stride. She chested it down to her left foot and, an instant after it touched the turf, rocketed the ball from 12 yards into the near side of the net. Lindahl could not be blamed for this one.
Wambach credited Lilly, saying, "When she gets inside herself, I know something good is about to happen. That's the way Kristine is. I have been playing with her long enough to know what kind of touches she makes, and she made a touch up the field. It was a perfect play for me to just take off."
Added Dennerby: "She is a strong player and she has a beautiful shot. If you like football, you like to see a girl like Abby Wambach go today, but for us it was in the wrong match."
United States tops Sweden at World Cup
CHENGDU, China &