he search for a team to challenge the US continues.
In their most difficult test thus far, the defending champions came through unscathed, securing a comfortable 2-0 victory against Sweden to make it three wins from three in France with no goals conceded.
For athleticism, for speed, for attacking prowess the US are without equal at this Women’s World Cup. Indeed, no team has ever scored more in the group stages than the 18 goals netted by the US.
Sterner tests will come, but probably not until the quarterfinals when France, if the last-16 ties go as the bookies’ predict, will likely be the opponent for what would be a mouthwatering contest in Paris.
From the moment Lindsey Horan struck in the third minute in Le Havre for the quickest goal of the tournament the result was never in doubt. That a Jonna Andersson own goal was the only addition to the scoreline will probably be an irritation for a team from which much is expected.
The US wasn’t without weakness, there were occasions when the defense erred — Kosovare Asllani glided through on goal far too easily in the first half — but Jill Ellis’ side conclude the group stages as Group F winners and as justified favorites for a fourth title.
Ellis’ biggest worry is likely to be Alex Morgan’s half-time departure after a heavy challenge in the first half.
Three years ago, it was Sweden which knocked out the US at the quarterfinal stage of the Rio Olympics, the US’ worst showing in a major tournament.
Since that loss Ellis has tinkered with rather than overhauled the team’s style of play and, so far, it has worked as the reigning champions go into the last 16 with three victories from three matches and a goal difference of +18. Germany is the only other side to progress to the knockout stages with a blemish-free defensive record.
Ellis opted for mostly the same personnel which started the record 13-0 opening victory over Thailand. Midfielder Julie Ertz — a player who kept a photo of the Sweden defeat as a screensaver on her phone to use failure to fuel the fire — was the only major absentee through injury.
With progress also assured Sweden made seven changes to the team which beat Thailand in its last outing. Four players were given their World Cup debuts for a formidable baptism on the big stage.
The US and Sweden are familiar foes. No other teams have played each other on more occasions at Women’s World Cups so Sweden should have been alert to the danger the defending champions pose at set pieces.
But when Megan Rapinoe swung in a low corner, Sweden’s defenders allowed the ball to fall into the path of Horan, leaving the impressive midfielder with a simple strike a few yards from goal. Even Thailand had held firm for longer.
Despite the US’ monopoly of possession and territory, it wasn’t until the 50th minute that the second breakthrough came.
Rapinoe was again the creator, finding the effervescent Heath who aimed at goal from an acute angle, forcing Andersson to direct the ball into her own net. Should the goal have been disallowed? Substitute Carli Lloyd appeared offside leading up to the goal, but VAR deemed that the striker was not interfering with play.
Lloyd should have scored a third in the dying minutes, but the striker drew a fine save from Hedvig Lindahl.
Sweden will play Canada next on Monday, while the US will now turn its attention to a last-16 match against Spain, a team which is competing in the knockout stages for the first time and one which the defending champions defeated 1-0 in a friendly in January.
“Spain’s a great side,” Ellis told reporters after the match.
“It was really purposeful why we wanted to play them earlier in the year. It was great to get them on the schedule and experience that in their home country. Any team that gets out of the group and is in this position you100% respect and obviously we need to have very good preparation and performance to do very well against them.”