There is a strange air around the U.S. women’s national team’s World Cup group-stage finale against Sweden on Thursday.
Win or tie, and the U.S. tops Group F, getting a second-place side in the last 16 before a potential quarterfinal showdown against a European power.
Lose and, well, the same thing will probably happen.
In fact, there have been suggestions that the USWNT’s path to a second straight title may even be easier with a loss against the Swedes in Le Havre.
Naturally, the idea that the U.S. would do anything other than go all-out to defeat Sweden is anathema to everything that the team represents.
“It’s in our team’s DNA to want to win,” defender Abby Dahlkemper said. “We’re definitely entering this game 100 percent focused and wanting to win.”
Losing against Sweden would see the U.S. finish second in its group and face the runner-up from Group E – either the Netherlands or Canada – before a likely quarterfinal against Germany, who may be without star player Dzsenifer Marozsan.
It’s hard to say one route is demonstrably better than the other but at the very least, there doesn’t appear to be much difference.
That’s at least part of the reason that U.S. head coach Jill Ellis has batted aside suggestions her team would look to do anything other than make it three wins from three in the group stage.
“You can’t overthink this and deciding to go for second or manipulate a score, I think that can be dangerous,” Ellis said.
The USWNT is looking to play seven games at this tournament and the way Ellis sees it, her side will have to vanquish the best teams sooner or later if they want to win it all.
“Whether you play team X in group play, whether you play them in the semis or finals or quarters or 16s, you've got to play everybody,” Ellis said.
“I don’t think there’s plotting out a dream path or something like that. The draw is what it is and we navigate whoever is in front of us.”
The high-profile showdown between the U.S. and France has been anticipated since long before the tournament kicked off, and Ellis has clearly grown tired of the constant speculation over the potential game in Paris on June 28.
“There’s actually another game in between the quarters and this game so there’s a lot of things that can play out,” Ellis said dryly.
Indeed, France may not even reach the quarterfinal. After an insipid performance against Nigeria in its group-stage finale, France may have to face Brazil – an unusually strong third-place finisher with six points – in the last 16.
More importantly though, the top-ranked U.S. is expecting to win every game it plays this tournament, no matter which team lines up on the other side of the pitch.
“If our team can focus on our performance and play to the level that we can, then I think we are a challenge and a handful for any team we play,” Ellis said.