Sweden 0-0 (5-4) United States: Blågult knock out World Champions in tense shootout

It was a cool winter evening in Melbourne and the air was filled with hope and anticipation – hope that Sweden needed to finally dethrone the reigning World Champions, USA. The Blågult have been in imperious form, winning all of their group stage matches to top the group. The Stars and Stripes failed to top the group for the first time since 2011, coincidentally also the last time Sweden beat them. The queens of the FIFA Women’s World Cup looked vulnerable, and Sweden aimed to take full advantage.

SWE: Musovic, Andersson, Eriksson, Ilestedt, Björn, Rubensson, Angeldahl, Rolfö, Asllani, Rytting Kaneryd, Blackstenius

USA: Naeher, Dunn, Girma, Sonnet, Fox, Horan, Sullivan, Ertz, Smith, Morgan, Rodman

Sweden started the match with familiar control – the same kind they had enjoyed throughout the group stage. The Blågult controlled possession as they looked to break down the USA, however it didn’t take long for the reigning World Champions to counter on the break and cause problems for a highly disciplined Swedish defence. With every break, the USWNT looked to build-up quickly and create chances before Sweden could regroup. However, the Blågult managed to put numbers behind the ball quickly every time the Americans won possession in their half. 

It quickly became the story of the half as the USA began to take control of possession and break down Sweden’s tough defence. For most of the half, very few chances were created in a highly contested affair between two high quality teams. Trinity Rodman looked to test the Swedish ‘keeper, Zecira Musovic, with a few shots from range – but never managed to truly put her to work. 

The few chances either side could create came through set-pieces. Sweden tested Naeher in the 22nd minute with an inswinging corner that forced her to palm the ball out, though it was the Stars and Stripes that managed to create the best chance of the half with a corner in the 34th minute. Swinging into the box from the right, Lindsey Horan jumped highest to head towards goal but only found the crossbar. With Musovic at full stretch, Sweden counted themselves lucky as they continued to soak up American pressure.

USA looked to continue their dominance and find the breakthrough, but were never able to find the crucial pass in the final third. As Sweden maintained their defensive shape, chance creation proved to be more difficult than ever for the World Champions. However, the Blågult still counted themselves lucky to go into the break level with the amount of pressure they’d soaked up. A change of plan was needed if Sweden wanted to get back into the game. 

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However, the second half started off where the USA left the first – in total control. If Sweden did change their plan, you couldn’t tell as the USA continued their dominance in possession. They were able to break down the Swedish defence and started to create better goal scoring opportunities, with one of their best coming as a dangerous low cross was delivered to Horan in the 53rd minute. With a venomous connection, she delivered a low shot towards Musovic’s left corner. However, the Swedish ‘keeper provided an outstanding reflex save to deny the USWNT captain the opening goal.

The World Champions continued their pursuit for the lead, but Sweden’s defence dug in deep to deny them momentum. However, the Stars and Stripes kept coming and continued to make chances in the Sweden half. They created another golden opportunity to take the lead with Rodman playing a pass to Smith on the right wing, who found acres of space and benefitted from plenty of time. However, her first touch let her down, giving Musovic the opportunity to close her down before she could unleash a shot. 

As USA’s attacking momentum slowed down throughout the half, Sweden looked to find their feet again and get back into the game. As they slowly starting winning possession again, the Blågult looked to drive into the USWNT’s defence from the wing. However, their defence matched the discipline and strength of the Swedes, and very few chances could be created. While the USA continued to control the match, neither side could find the right attacking momentum to take the lead. 

In the remaining ten minutes of the match, Sweden managed to drive into the USA box with Blackstenius testing Naeher with their first shot on target. It took 85 minutes for them to register it, and it’s no surprise given USA’s control. It meant Sweden’s keeper, Zecira Musovic, was their best player by far as she almost single-handedly kept the score level. She continued to impress by denying the World Champions a late winner, saving an Alex Morgan header in the 89th minute.

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Despite their dominance, the USA couldn’t find the breakthrough in 90 minutes – and Sweden were lucky to survive it. Their only chance now was surviving the next thirty, in the hope penalties favours the underdogs. 

The story didn’t change in extra-time as USA continued to drive through the Swedish defence with more shots being denied by the imperious Musovic. As she continued to keep her country’s hopes alive, the plan for Sweden shifted to surviving until penalties. With the form their ‘keeper was in, winning the match on penalties was more than just a desperate dream for Sweden. 

Musovic continued to deny the USA in the second half of extra time. Smith testing her again with a shot at her near post, but again she couldn’t find the back of the net. With penalties looming, the USWNT manager tried to make changes in the hope of winning the game within 120 minutes of football. Vlatko Andonovski took off key players such as Alex Morgan for Megan Rapinoe to force a winner. However, no breakthrough could be found, and penalties would be the difference between Sweden and USA. 

In a match largely bereft of entertainment, the penalty shootout provided the most entertainment and drama. USA started the shootout with Sullivan scoring, and Rolfo responded for Sweden levelling the shootout. Horan then took the USA’s next, and scored. Rubensson scored Sweden’s second to keep the score level – with Mewis then stepping up to take USA’s third, which she scored to give them the lead again.

This is when the drama of the shootout began, as Nathalie Bjorn blazed Sweden’s third penalty over the bar. The balance tipped in the favour of the USA, and they looked set to win it. Next to step up to the spot was Megan Rapinoe – the USWNT’s serial World Cup hero – to win the shootout and send the Stars and Stripes through. However, she followed Bjorn in sending her penalty miles over the bar, even giving a wry smile sharing the disbelief of entire stadium. Sweden were still in it and they could hardly believe their luck…

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Blomqvist stepped up to take Sweden’s fourth penalty and put them back on level terms. For the third penalty in a row though, it was sent well over the bar and the USA were on the verge of victory again. Sophia Smith walked to the penalty spot to amend Rapinoe’s mistake and win the shootout. For whatever reason, be it seeing her name in lights or the sheer pressure of the occasion, she wasted the opportunity and sent another penalty well over the woodwork. Sweden’s hopes were alive again, but they could only be restored by Hanna Bennison. She ended the streak of penalties sent to the skies, blasting her effort with power into the roof of the net. Three goals each for both sides ensured sudden death awaited.

Naeher swapped her position between the sticks for behind the penalty spot to take USA’s sixth penalty. She scored, and Eriksson did the same for Sweden. Another serial winner in Kelley O’Hara stepped up to the spot to take her country’s seventh penalty – however, the old guard let them down again as she hit the post and placed the chance to win in the lap of Sweden. 

Lina Hurtig stepped up with the weight of her country sitting on her shoulders. She had the chance to finally knock out the reigning World Champions. She stepped up and took her penalty, but Naeher saved it to seemingly deny Sweden’s progression. However, the ball had looped over her, and she palmed it out again. She thought she had kept her country in it, and the stadium held its breath as the referee waited on the decision. After keeping spectators in suspense, the referee was told the ball had crossed the line – Hurtig had scored, and the World Champions had been knocked out!

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In the cruellest fashion, the Stars and Stripes’ FIFA Women’s World Cup era of dominance was over, and it ended on penalties. In a match they dominated for 120 minutes, they lacked attacking bite and couldn’t find the winner they needed. Sweden’s Zecira Musovic played a key part in denying them and keeping them alive until penalties, proving crucial to Sweden’s victory as they went through by the slimmest of margins. 

It brings an end to the USA’s impeccable record at the tournament, and it may signal the end of a golden era of dominance, with many serial winners having played their last match for the Stars and Stripes. With Sweden dethroning them, the Blågult’s focus now switches to their quarterfinal against Japan. With one challenging test conquered, another awaits them at Eden Park this Friday. Can they go all the way and make history as their fallen opponents have done in the past?