Caitlin Murray, ESPNAug 5, 2023, 10:58 AM ET
CloseCaitlin Murray is a general editor for ESPN.com. She has reported on and written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, Yahoo Sports, Fox Sports, the Associated Press, and others.
She authored a book about the history of the U.S. women’s national team called “The National Team: The Inside Story of the Women Who Changed Soccer,” which made “best of” lists in Vanity Fair, The Financial Times, NPR and The Los Angeles Times. On Twitter and Instagram, she’s @caitlinmurr.
MELBOURNE, Australia — Fresh off their worst group stage in Women’s World Cup history, the U.S. women’s national team enters the knockout stage looking like an imposter of the team that won the World Cup four years ago.
The problems for this USWNT have been well-documented, and they are myriad. They fail to put shots on target or score goals. They struggle to pass the ball or maintain possession for any sustained amount of time. They lack creativity and are too predictable. The players look tight and joyless. And so on.
But here’s the caveat: this is still the U.S. women’s national team, and they can still beat Sweden to advance through this tournament — and maybe win the whole darn thing.
“There’s no secret that their group games didn’t go exactly like they wanted,” said Sweden defender Nathalie Björn. “But that’s the thing with the USA: you can never count them out.”
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Indeed, the USWNT has never failed to reach the semifinals of a World Cup. Even when their performances were bad enough in 2015 that some former players called for then-coach Jill Ellis to be fired, the team still kept advancing and eventually won the tournament.
Of course, even in 2015, results somehow fell their way — they won two of their group stage games, drawing one. In this group stage, the USWNT won just once against Vietnam, drawing against Netherlands and Portugal. Before this tournament, the U.S. had never won fewer than two games or earned fewer than six points in a Women’s World Cup group stage.
But the results aren’t far from falling the USWNT’s way here, either. For as ugly as the soccer has been, there’s been a fine line between the mediocre results the USWNT has gotten and the good results the team wants.
The USWNT has scored just four goals in the group stage, but their expected goals (xG) has been eight. That means that, according to advanced metrics, the USWNT creates chances that usually would be expected to result in eight goals over those first three games of the tournament. They’ve also taken 62 shots, the second-highest of any team in the tournament’s group stage, resulting in a terrible shot-to-goal conversion rate of just 6%.
What does that mean? Well, if they start converting just slightly more of their shots into goals and if they start performing closer to where the xG metrics say they should, the USWNT will suddenly be winning games, potentially by multiple goals. The average conversion rate at the previous World Cup was 11%, and it stands to reason the USWNT should start converting more than 6% of shots.
Sweden coach Peter Gerhardsson is prepared for such a possibility.
“We know that the U.S. is a very good team,” he said in English on Saturday. “Sometimes you can talk about regression to the mean. If you play very bad, it’s going to get better. If you play very well, it’s sometimes toward the middle.”
Gerhardsson added, in Swedish through an interpreter: “If they had gotten all their balls on target, if they had scored, who knows what would have happened?”
The USWNT has scored just four goals in the group stage but has seen high xG stats. Carmen Mandato/USSF/Getty Images
As winger Lynn Williams put it recently: the USWNT’s poor attacking performances mean they can only get better.
“We are not panicking,” she said. “We’ve made it to the round of 16 and we haven’t played our best soccer yet, which is the most exciting part for us. And even when we haven’t played our best soccer we’ve only allowed one shot on goal — unluckily for us, it went in, but it’s been one in three games.”
But now, given how the group stage played out, the U.S. goes into Sunday’s round-of-16 match looking like an underdog. It’s a rare position for the Americans to be in, but the recent history of these two teams has involved Sweden repeatedly humiliating the USWNT.
The U.S. suffered its earliest ever exit in a global tournament at the 2016 Olympics when a transitional, bunker-and-counter Sweden team bounced them from the tournament in the quarterfinal thanks to well-executed defensive tactics.
Five years later, at the 2021 Olympics, the U.S. opened the tournament with humiliation from Sweden. No longer a transitional side, Sweden pressed relentlessly, forced turnovers and then went straight at goal, winning 3-0 while the USWNT chased shadows.
USWNT co-captain Alex Morgan insisted that the players aren’t letting those previous meetings against Sweden linger in the back of their minds.
“What’s happened against Sweden in the past is in the past,” Morgan said. “We obviously take away a lot of things in terms of their playing style and how to break them down, but I don’t think that there’s any feelings towards the games we played against them in the past that we’re bringing into tomorrow.”
You’d expect her to say that, of course. The players always say the right things about taking things one game at a time and only looking at what’s in front of them, but it’s awfully difficult not to look back — not when some of the USWNT’s worst losses in history came at the hands of Sweden. That is is a win-or-go-home scenario — one that could have to be decided by the crapshoot of penalty kicks if not resolved in 120 minutes — only adds more pressure.
The Sweden that the USWNT will face on Sunday will probably look a lot like the Sweden of 2021, which means it’ll be a different type of opponent than the U.S. saw during the group stage. That’s as good a reason as any for the Americans to feel hopeful that they can put in a different performance, too, as they enter this new phase of the tournament.
“It hasn’t been the tournament that I would’ve hope for,” Morgan said. “But at the same time, having this incredible opportunity in front of us in the round of 16, facing Sweden, a team we know extremely well, there’s no question we’re highly motivated to play in this game.”