The United States are all alone top of Group D. Nobody would have guessed that they would be in this place before the tournament, but Sweden's shock draw with Nigeria put the Americans on top and looking down on the rest of the group. That doesn't make the U.S.' second match any easier, though.
Sweden may have been shocked by Nigeria, but they're still an excellent team that is more than deserving of being fifth in the FIFA rankings. Many pegged them as contenders to win the whole tournament before it got underway and for very good reason. They're also the same team that has had the Americans' number of late. Toss in the Pia Sundhage factor, giving the Swedes an extreme level of familiarity with the U.S., and this will be a very tricky match for the Americans.
If the U.S. win, they will clinch a spot in the knockout stages, but their goal is much bigger than just getting out of the group. They are eyeing a World Cup title and they need to win their group to give themselves a good chance at it. If they finish second, they will be looking at a hellacious road to the final, but if they win it then the road is relatively smooth. They want to beat Sweden so they are well into the pole position to win the group, not just get out of it.
So what are the keys for the U.S. as they look to beat a very good Sweden team?
Keep Lotta Schelin in check
The U.S. defense was exploited repeatedly by Australia in their World Cup opener and the only reason they didn't concede three, if not four or five times, was Hope Solo. They can't afford to be as disjointed at the back this time around because if they are, Lotta Schelin will make them pay.
If the Americans are going to improve at the back, it will start with the midfield, though. It's hard enough not playing with a defensive midfielder, but the U.S. got caught up field way too often last match and allowed Australia to run at the back line all match long. The Australians didn't quite have the attacking power to make them pay, but Sweden do. Carli Lloyd and Lauren Holiday have to do a better job of defending the center of the pitch, especially in the 25 yards in front of the defense. If they don't, Schelin will camp out there and destroy the Americans.
Getting something from the forwards
The Americans' biggest problem for years has been how to manage their cavalcade of forwards. They have so many good ones with Abby Wambach, Alex Morgan, Sydney Leroux, Amy Rodriguez and Christen Press all in the team and deciding who to play isn't easy.
Last match, Jill Ellis went with Wambach and Leroux, but both struggled. Wambach, in particular, was bad, failing to create much and whiffing on on a header to waste one of the best chances of the match. Leroux also had some bad touches and her movement was predictable. She finally got involved in one play, dragging wide then cutting the ball back, leading to a goal and showing what she can do. She just needs to do it more.
It's unclear who Ellis will turn to against Sweden. Wambach and Leroux could start again, but Morgan is getting closer to fit and could feature herself, while Rodriguez is still an option. Press looks likely to stay on the wing so that limits Ellis' choices somewhat. Regardless of who Ellis starts, the U.S. will need those two to live up to their considerable potential and be much better than what the Americans got from their strikers last match because they can't lean on Megan Rapinoe to get it all done again.
Helping out Megan Rapinoe
It's not just the forwards who need to take the pressure off of Rapinoe. The rest of the midfield has to do it as well. Even though Rapinoe scored a pair of goals, she wasn't especially good in the opener. The midfielder gave the ball away too many times and left way too much space for Australia to counter with. Part of that could be chalked up to her teammates, though, as she was often left with few options to pass the ball to and felt pressure to create with the Americans struggling for ideas with the ball.
Lloyd and Holiday will be the two most counted upon to give Rapinoe some help. The two are excellent players going forward and while they have considerable defensive duties, they also need to be factors in the final third. If they can do that, they're not just capable of providing options for Rapinoe, but scoring and assists goals. They can completely change the American attack and they'll have to do just that.
If Rapinoe gets a little assistance, she won't have to try to do so much, allowing her to be more mindful of her defensive responsibilities. She also won't have to force as many passes, allowing the Americans to keep the ball and dictate tempo more often. Against a team as good as Sweden, they'll have to do just that.