The USWNT will play Sweden for the first time in a knockout round at the World Cup
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Lots of action at the Women's World Cup in Australia and New Zealand. Spain defeated Switzerland 5-1. That qualifies them for the quarterfinals. And tomorrow, U.S. fans will have to be up early - 5 a.m. Eastern time - for America versus Sweden. It's become something of a classic matchup at the World Cup, but will this U.S. team be up to the challenge? NPR's Laurel Wamsley has been watching. Thanks so much for being with us.
LAUREL WAMSLEY, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Scott.
SIMON: U.S. is still in it but not by much, right?
WAMSLEY: No, it has been stressful so far. We're still in it, but it's looking a little rocky. You know, the U.S. come into this as the two-time defending champs at the World Cup, and they came very close to being sent home this week. They struggled to tie Portugal, who are playing in their first Women's World Cup. Portugal had a late shot that hit the post and almost sent the U.S. packing. Earlier in the group, the U.S. beat Vietnam 3-0 and tied with the Netherlands. But all of that took the U.S. to second place in the group after the Dutch, and that makes for a harder road ahead for the U.S.
SIMON: Question of the tournament - why has the U.S. struggled so much?
WAMSLEY: Well, there's a few reasons, but the biggest one is probably just the youth on this squad. You know, 14 out of the 23 on this team - this is their first World Cup. The coach this time, Vlatko Andonovski - it's also his debut at a World Cup. And for the last few tournaments where this team has been so successful, they had played together a lot. These were players who were so familiar to us at home and familiar to each other. But this time around, there's just a lot of new players, and they just seems like they haven't quite gelled the same way we expect. You watch, and there's not that same fluidity, and there's not the same amount of goals that we expect. And it could be that this team has just spent less time practicing and training together.
SIMON: What might we see in the U.S. match against Sweden early Sunday?
WAMSLEY: Well, for one thing, we won't be seeing Rose Lavelle. She's the creative midfielder that the U.S. has really depended on. And unfortunately, she accumulated two yellow cards in the group stage, and so she has to sit on a bench for this next game. The U.S. coach is going to be under a lot of pressure to try to find some new tricks here with this team that we haven't been seeing so far. There's sky-high expectations for this team. Up to now, they've had an unbroken streak of reaching the semifinals of every previous Women's World Cup. But despite those of us at home who are worried for them, U.S. forward Lynn Williams said at a press conference this week that the team isn't panicking and that they have yet to play their best soccer. So, you know, on the other hand, there's also, I guess, a positive to the U.S.'s struggle here. It does show that the women's game is just getting better around the world. There's no longer a big gulf between the U.S. and these other teams.
SIMON: And Sweden's a good team, right?
WAMSLEY: They're a very good team. You know, it's basically a tradition for the U.S. to play Sweden at the Women's World Cup. This will be their seventh time meeting, though their first time to meet in the knockout stage. And Sweden has been playing very well. They won all of their group stage games, as did England and Japan in their groups. And Sweden outscored their opponents here 9-1. Especially troublesome for the U.S. could be Amanda Ilestedt. She's a defensive center-back, and she's already scored three goals here at the tournament, all headed in off of corner kicks. And Sweden, unlike the U.S., has never won one of these big major tournaments, so they're hungry.
SIMON: NPR's Laurel Wamsley, thanks so much.
WAMSLEY: You're welcome.
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