Alex Morgan - US women's national team - USWNT - vs. Sweden

USA vs. SWEDEN
Women's Olympic Soccer, Rio 2016 – Quarterfinals
Estadio Nacional Mane Garrincha – Brasilia, Brazil
August 12, 2016 – Noon ET
TV: NBCSN, NBC Olympic Soccer Channel

The US women's national team open the last, and trickiest, phase of their gold-medal title defense on Friday afternoon, as the Olympic knockout rounds begin vs. a grizzled Sweden side led by former USWNT coach Pia Sundhage.


Several of the Yanks have mixed memories of Sundhage, who led the US to gold in 2008 and 2012 but fell one game short of the 2011 Women's World Cup trophy, and the Swedes present a tricky matchup in some ways. Yet the team as a whole will see this game mostly as the next hurdle to vault on their path to the Olympic final at Rio's renowned Maracana on Aug. 19.


You again


While they haven't been familiar during Olympic play, the US and Sweden have constantly locked horns in World Cup play. Two of women's soccer's original heavyweights, they've been grouped together for four straight Women's World Cups (2003, 2007, 2011 and 2015). They also faced off in the first-ever WWC, originally (and clunkily) dubbed the “1st FIFA World Championship for Women's Football for the M&M's Cup,” in 1991.


The USWNT won that that '91 meeting 3-2, and went on to beat the Scandinavians in 2003 (3-1) and 2007 (2-0), but fell 2-1 at Germany 2011. Last summer, the two sides ground out a 0-0 draw at Canada 2015 (pictured below), as a dour Sweden tied all three group-stage matches before Germany whipped them 4-1 in the Round of 16.

USA vs. Sweden | 2016 Women's Olympic Match Preview - https://league-mp7static.mlsdigital.net/styles/full_landscape/s3/mp6/image_nodes/2015/06/Crowded-penalty-box-in-USWNT-vs-Sweden,-WWC-2015.jpg?null&itok=I6-qnupP&c=46dff418cd3901b7c59ae6c3bcc3c2bf

Remembered fondly for her relaxed, coaching style – including a habit of singing to her players – Sundhage was mostly praised and saluted when she left the US job after London 2012. She got a lot more blunt in public after she left the program, however. She made headlines with some rather unflattering remarks about her old team in the run-up to last year's meeting, calling the likes of Carli Lloyd and Hope Solo “a challenge to coach.”


Was Sundhage just playing mind games before her former squad met her current one? If so, she seems to be trying it again this week:

Viking catenaccio?


Don't read too much into the inspired 5-1 drubbing hosts Brazil gave Sweden in the group round. Last summer's scoreless stalemate in Winnipeg – which to be fair, probably should've been a 1-0 Swedish win given Meghan Klingenberg's clutch goal-line denial of a Caroline Seger effort – reflected what troublesome opponents Sundhage's team could be in Brasilia.


Once a fairly attack-minded outfit, the Blågult (Blue-and-Gold) can call on world-class attacking talent in the form of Kosovare Asllani and captain Lotta Schelin (both of whom have, rather amusingly, been dubbed the female Zlatan Ibrahimovic). But under Sundhage they have hardened into a reactive, attritional style and USWNT coach Jill Ellis made her expectations clear in Thursday's pregame press conference:

Uncompromising center back Nilla Fischer is a powerful defender with a nasty edge who will threaten on attacking set pieces (she bundled home the winner vs. South Africa, one of only two goals scored by Sweden in three games thus far). She, along with other veterans like Seger, Linda Sembrant and Lisa Dahlkvist, are familiar with the US and will do their best to stifle and stymie them while hunting for a goal against the run of play.


Decisions, decisions


The USWNT have more than enough talent and know-how to bat aside Sweden and move on. The main question is, will Ellis and her players make it easier on themselves by picking the right lineup and avoiding silly mistakes?


Solo must shake off the goalkeeping mistakes she made in Tuesday's 2-2 draw vs. Colombia, while Lloyd will search for the higher gear that everyone knows she has, but has yet to appear in Brazil this month.


“We as athletes, we always want to perform well, every single game, but reality is that it’s not possible,” Lloyd said in the wake of the Colombia draw. “I look at this as a positive, as something that we can use to motivate ourselves. We know we can be better. We have to move on and now it’s do-or-die time, one game at a time. We’ll be ready and fired up.”


Ellis has to decide whether she prefers Crystal Dunn or Mallory Pugh on the wing opposite trickster Tobin Heath, and which two she will field in central midfield out of Morgan Brian, Allie Long and Lindsey Horan. Both are critical choices that are tough to get a read on without full knowledge of what's happening on the training ground.

USA vs. Sweden | 2016 Women's Olympic Match Preview - https://league-mp7static.mlsdigital.net/styles/full_landscape/s3/mp6/image_nodes/2015/06/JohnstonSweden.jpg?null&itok=Dy-DIwMG&c=2e6aa364c93335be6c75ea084a61271f

One more troubling question: Will Julie Johnston (pictured above, in 2015 action vs. Schelin) be ready to play again? The rugged center back is the ideal foil for the cerebral Becky Sauerbrunn, yet has sat out the last two games with a groin issue that was originally described as mild.


One source close to the USWNT told MLSsoccer.com that Johnston didn't even warm up with the team before the win over France on Saturday, but that she did so in the Colombia pregame. Even though Whitney Engen has performed well in her place, Johnston's return – assuming she's at full-speed, or close to it – would be a big mental boost for her teammates.