DRESDEN, Germany — The Americans can read a draw as well as anyone else. To win a third World Cup title, they were going to have to see Brazil at some point.
OK, so it’s happening earlier than they expected. But quarterfinals or the final, the Americans insist they’re ready for Brazil and dynamic playmaker Marta.
Excited about it, too.
“Obviously nobody wants to lose in a World Cup,” Lauren Cheney said Thursday. “We’re still smiling, we’re still enjoying this journey. Our belief in each other is unbelievable. No matter what happens, we believe we can make it and carry on. That’s what we did. From the coaching staff on down, we all still have a lot of confidence.”
The expectation all along has been that the top-ranked Americans would win their group, setting up a showdown with two-time defending champion Germany in the semifinals. Win that game, and the U.S. would play Brazil for yet another title — this one at the World Cup. The U.S. beat Brazil to win the gold medal at the last two Olympic Games; Brazil was runner-up at the 2007 World Cup after knocking the Americans out in the semifinals.
But the Americans blew the gameplan with their 2-1 loss to Sweden on Wednesday night. Needing only a draw to avoid Brazil, the U.S. instead lost a group stage game for the first time at the World Cup. Rather than the “easy” road laid out for them, the Americans have to go through Brazil just to get to the semifinals.
The U.S. and Brazil play Sunday, with the winner taking on either England or France in the semifinals Wednesday.
“We go into every game wanting to win. And we didn’t,” Shannon Boxx said. “The good thing is, now we’re into the quarterfinals anyway. We have a tough opponent against Brazil and we’re excited about it. We said we’d have to face them at some point if we went all the way. Now we’re just facing them a little earlier.”
What the Americans see as confidence others might call denial. This, after all, is the same team that has lost four games since November after going unbeaten for more than two years. The same team that lost in regional qualifying to Mexico, which had gone oh-fer against the Americans in the first 25 tries. The same team that left more chances on the field in the first three games than so me teams will see in three World Cups.
But it’s those chances that have the U.S. convinced they are only inches away from a commanding performance that could make all the different scenarios at the World Cup irrelevant.
“We had so many chances and we had good opportunities. We’re happy with the fact we had so many shots on goal,” said Cheney, who put a side volley over the crossbar early in the second half. “So they’re coming. We’re creating chances, which is great. We felt a little unlucky some of them didn’t go in, but that’s just the way soccer is sometimes.
“The goals are going to come. We need to just keep doing what we’re doing.”
Well, not everything they’re doing.
Sweden scored its first goal off a penalty kick after Amy LePeilbet tripped Lotta Schelin in the box in the 14th minute, and the U.S. defense looked downright clunky in the first half as it failed to contain the speedy, aggressive tandem of Schelin and Josefine Oqvist. The U.S. got away from coach Pia Sundhage’s preferred style of offense, reverting back to its old habit of sending long balls over the defense rather than creating plays through the midfield.
It didn’t help that the U.S. was without Heather O’Reilly, whose speed on the flanks automatically gives the offense more creativity and versatility. O’Reilly, who sat out the game with a sore groin, is expected to play against Brazil.
“We could have been a little more patient, especially in the attacking third,” Sundhage said. “We were too eager to get in the box.”
Despite all that, the Americans had a whopping 20-9 advantage in shots, including a 6-5 edge in shots on goal. The U.S. kept Sweden goalkeeper Hedvig Lindahl so busy in the second half she barely had time to catch her breath.
“I never once thought we were going to lose, not until the final whistle blew,” Cheney said. “If the effort is there, we’re all talented soccer players. It’s going to come together for us.”
If it does, the U.S. might yet be part of blockbuster final after all.
“I think it’s a really cool challenge for us to face Brazil,” Abby Wambach said. “And then maybe England or France. Then, obviously putting Germany into the final, some people might call that a fairytale ending.”