The United States Women’s National Team emerged from Group E at the 2023 Women’s World Cup behind the Netherlands, a disquieting standing for the two-time defending champions that could portend the failure to secure a fifth title. However, the single-elimination knockout stage is, in a sense, a new and separate competition that can reward the experience attained by seasoned programs. The Round-of-16 opponent is a blossoming Sweden squad, looking to continue a run that includes a third-place finish at the 2019 tournament and silver medals at the 2016 and 2020 Olympic Games. Following three matches apiece in New Zealand, the setting shifts to Australia, with Melbourne Rectangular Stadium – a 30,000-capacity multi-purpose venue, also known as AAMI Park, that opened in 2010 – will serve as host.
This is the 43rd all-time meeting between the two nations, with the USWNT holding a 23-7-12 advantage but falling in the most-recent fixture in the group stage of the 2020 Olympic Games. Ranked third internationally by FIFA, Sweden qualified for a ninth World Cup by finishing atop UEFA’s Group A with a 7-0-1 record and +30 goal differential (32 for, two against). At the final competition, Blågult (The Blue and Yellow) arose from Group G in first place with nine points, coming back with a late goal against South Africa (2-1), walking past Italy (5-0), and closing proceedings versus Argentina (2-0).
Peter Gerhardsson was appointed to the manager position in November of 2016, taking over for Pia Sundhage following the 2017 UEFA European Women’s Championship. The 63-year-old retired forward has experience leading a mix of club sides and the Sweden U-17 national team, enjoying a tenure that has seen multiple podium finishes. He maintains a players-first style focused on individual needs that allows for flexibility.
Gerhardsson named an experienced 23-player roster for the World Cup with an average age of 28.56 years old. The domestic Damallsvenskan is home to nine of the call-ups, other European leagues house 13 members of the squad, and a lone representative is on the books in the National Women’s Soccer League. Kansas City Current defender Hanna Glas was left out of the squad due to the lingering effects from a long-term knee injury.
GOALKEEPERS (3): Zećira Mušović (Chelsea), Jennifer Falk (BK Häcken), Tove Enblom (KIF Örebro)
DEFENDERS (7): Jonna Andersson (Hammarby IF), Linda Sembrant (Juventus), Stina Lennartsson (Linköpings FC), Anna Sandberg (BK Häcken), Magdalena Eriksson (Bayern Munich), Amanda Ilestedt (Arsenal), Nathalie Björn (Everton)
MIDFIELDERS (7): Kosovare Asllani (Milan), Filippa Angeldahl (Manchester City), Caroline Seger (Rosengård), Johanna Rytting Kaneryd (Chelsea), Hanna Bennison (Everton), Olivia Schough (Rosengård), Elin Rubensson (BK Häcken)
FORWARDS (6): Madelen Janogy (Hammarby IF), Lina Hurtig (Arsenal), Sofia Jakobsson (San Diego Wave), Stina Blackstenius (Arsenal), Rebecka Blomqvist (VfL Wolfsburg), Fridolina Rolfö (Barcelona)
While Gerhardsson utilizes the standard 4-2-3-1 formation, he preaches flexibility and creativity, granting his players the freedom to “create and improvise,” preferring adaptable decision-makers. Sweden takes a lot of shots and will attempt to physically bully opponents, enjoying success on set piece opportunities. The back line had trouble impeding South Africa’s counter-attack, perhaps a side effect of playing without a true defensive midfielder maintaining a deeper positioning.
“For a coach, the first priority is always to win games,” Gerhardsson shared before the tournament. “But I always have in my head the idea of playing attacking football and focusing on what we do when we have the ball. People can sometimes think about Sweden as just being well organized, always thinking about defending, but my ideas are very different.”
Only recently taking over as the number one, Zećira Mušović started the first two matches at the World Cup, surrendering a single goal. Standing 5’11”, the Chelsea starter has a good frame and has won three consecutive FA Women’s Super League titles, registering seven shutouts in 14 appearances last season. She is described as a “typical modern [player], excellent with the ball at her feet and starting attacks,” while being praised for “keeping the opposition at bay.” Her shot-stopping is second to none, maintaining composure during close-range opportunities.
Amanda Ilestedt completed a move to Arsenal after multiple seasons at Paris Saint-Germain and scored the match-winner in the opener against South Africa. She is dominant in the air and has an innate understanding of positioning, often beating opponents to the ball. Her likely centre-back partner is Magdalena Eriksson, who recently signed a three-year contract with Bayern Munich. The 29-year-old from Stockholm is a physical battler and can nail passes around the field, springing the counter-attack with her long-range diagonal distribution.
At left fullback is Jonna Andersson, who returned to domestic side Hammarby last season after several years with Chelsea. Total Football Analysis praises her defensive awareness, intercessions to prevent danger, pressing, and willingness to join the attack with accurate passing. On the other side of the formation is Everton’s Nathalie Björn, described as “one of the best defenders in Europe” while being “calm and composed in possession” and “confident going forward.” The club’s Players’ Player of the Season in 2022/23, she is an active and involved passer and displays strength in the tackle.
Back at domestic side BK Häcken, Elin Rubensson is heralded as “one of the smartest players in the league.” Pacey and a driving dribbler, she makes an impact on both sides of the field with hard tackling, long-distance shooting, and intelligent passing. Manchester City attacker Filippa Angeldahl entered the World Cup playing “some of the best football of her career,” confidence that helped carry Sweden through the group stage. The 26-year-old Uppsalabo looks to play the ball over the top or cut through multiple lines of the opponent with driven distribution. The midfield trio is completed by Kosovare Asllani of AC Milan, an advanced playmaker with 44 goals at the senior international level. While her positioning can be filled by luxury talents, her pressuring of defenders can create several scoring opportunities every match.
The left side of the field is patrolled by Fridolina Rolfö, the towering Barcelona wide-player who found the back of the net 12 times last season and uses her frame to overwhelm fullbacks. She is known for her “power, pace, and nose for goal,” typically looking to reach the endline before placing a cross but occasionally testing with an early shot. Her complement is Chelsea’s Johanna Kaneryd, a “versatile and experienced” winger who is “a thorn in the side of opposition defense.” The 26-year-old is an operator in the final third, hesitating, cutting, and searching for the opening to create for a teammate.
Leading the front line is Stina Blackstenius, a prolific scorer who is still waiting to truly break out with Arsenal in the Women’s Super League but maintains a reasonable level of production at the senior international level. The 27-year-old from Vadstena boasts a high work rate and presses hard, also serving to facilitate her teammates with “pace, technicality, and razor-sharp instincts in the penalty area.” She looks to make runs behind the defense, often finding herself isolated on the wing, but her crossing is accurate enough to cause problems. While there is the occasional shot from the corner of the area, the majority of her finishing comes closest to the goal from headers and redirections.
While matches at the World Cup are rarely easy, Sweden should present the sternest challenge thus far to the USWNT. The two-time defending champions can claim the arguable talent advantage, but the opponent has looked far stronger at the competition, displaying an attacking cohesion that has eluded Andonovski’s side. The knockout rounds can lead to a more entrenched style of play, as both groups attempt to limit catastrophic mistakes, although neither program has typically employed cynical tactics, instead opting to pursue the game.
The match is scheduled for Sunday, August 6th at 5:00 a.m. Eastern, 2:00 a.m. Pacific. Viewing options include FOX, Telemundo, Universo, Peacock, and FUBO TV (free trial).