WOLFSBURG, Germany – The Americans can’t do things the easy way.
Needing a victory or simply a tie to avoid Brazil in the quarterfinals, the United States lost to Sweden, 2-1, on Wednesday, the team’s fourth loss since November and first in Women’s World Cup group play.
“After, what I said to the team is, my glass is half-full,” U.S. coach Pia Sundhage said. “Even though we lost, we can come out as a winner if we take a different path. ... We really want to play in the final. But we have to play some great games, play some great teams. I really want us to embrace this process. I think the team will get stronger. That’s the plan.
“It’s a little bit different for me to talk about the final,” she added. “That’s what it takes when we take a different road.”
Lisa Dahlkvist converted a penalty kick, and Nilla Fischer scored on a deflected free kick for Sweden, which won Group C and will play Australia on Sunday in Augsburg.
Abby Wambach got the U.S. back in the game in the 67th minute with her first goal of the tournament, but as they have all year the Americans squandered too many other chances and now must face Brazil on Sunday in Dresden. Brazil was the runner-up to the Americans at the past two Olympics and to Germany at the 2007 World Cup, and is led by five-time FIFA player of the year Marta.
As the final whistle sounded, Sweden’s players rushed onto the field, gathered in a circle and did the dance that’s quickly becoming their tradition. They then took a victory lap around the field, delighting the many Swedish fans in the crowd of 23,468 who whistled and cheered.
The U.S. is a two-time World Cup champion, two-time defending Olympic gold medalist and the No. 1-ranked team in the world.
But the Americans have had a rough few months since being stunned by Mexico in the semifinals of regional World Cup qualifying, needing to beat Italy in a playoff just to get to Germany. The U.S. then lost to Sweden in the opener of the Four Nations tournament in January, and dropped its first game to England since 1988.
But they seemed to have regained their mojo in the first two games of the World Cup, scoring five goals and playing with a looseness and joy that hasn’t been seen in recent months.
But neither North Korea nor Colombia is the caliber of Sweden.
“We have great respect for the U.S. team but, at the same time, we know we’re good, too,” Lotta Schelin said.
And they wasted little time showing it, putting the U.S. on its heels early after Amy LePeilbet tripped Schelin in the box in the 14th minute to earn a penalty kick. Dahlkvist took the penalty, curling it into the left side of the net. Former University of Washington star Hope Solo dived in full stretch, but the ball was just beyond her fingertips.
“I was thinking that she’s smaller than me now in this moment,” Dahlkvist said. “She’s afraid of me.”
The goal snapped Solo’s scoreless streak at 796 minutes, second longest in U.S. history. It also ended a run of eight shutouts, dating back to March 2010.
Sweden is one of the few teams that can match up physically with the U.S., and the Americans didn’t always handle it well. Such as in the 35th minute, when Rachel Buehler was whistled for dragging down Therese Sjogran about 25 yards out.
Fischer, filling in as captain with Caroline Seger suspended, hammered a free kick into LePeilbet’s thigh. Solo, already moving to her left, was caught off-guard and could do nothing to stop the ball from bouncing into the net to her right.
“It was very unfortunate,” Solo said. “I felt like I didn’t have a chance to make a play on them, and that’s frustrating.”
The U.S. pulled back a goal in the 67th when Wambach shouldered in a corner kick from Lauren Cheney – the first goal of the tournament for Wambach and the 10th of her World Cup career, second most among Americans to Seattle’s Michelle Akers’ 12.
“Like I said, if I score and we don’t win, I won’t be happy,” said Wambach, who played despite missing the previous two days of practice with tendinitis in her right Achilles’ tendon.
The Americans pushed hard for the equalizer, repeatedly forcing Hedvig Lindahl to bat balls down or make saves. She punched away a hard shot by Megan Rapinoe in the 54th after Rapinoe neatly sidestepped Sara Thunebro, and World Cup rookie Kelly O’Hara missed a wide-open net from about 8 yards in the 86th.
Now, the U.S. is facing yet another bumpy road, just like in qualifying. At the 2008 Olympics, too. The Americans lost their first game in group play there, then ran off five victories, including a 1-0 win in overtime against the Brazilians.
“This team’s not going to give up,” Solo said. “I believe in this team coming back.”