A game between the United States and Sweden should already be a big occasion at the Women's World Cup. Both teams could win this thing, and on top of that Pia Sundhage - who coached the USWNT to the 2011 final as well as Olympic gold - is coaching the Swedes. It's the best two teams in arguably the best group in this tournament. It should be a huge game in and of itself.
Naturally that's been overshadowed by Sundhage's recent comments on several American players, including Hope Solo, Abby Wambach and Carli Lloyd. Let's be realistic here: The comments were not "scathing" or "harsh;" they were no real surprise for anyone who follows the American squad. Solo a challenge to coach? You don't say! Lloyd prone to swings in confidence? Well I never! And her opinion that Wambach should be a super-sub seems completely fair from an on-the-field perspective (it is overstepping her boundaries, of course, but it's not a major breach of etiquette).
Nonetheless, these comments have upped the ante in what is already a big game. Will we see the American stars prove their old boss wrong? Or did Sundhage - who showed plenty of skill in motivating the Americans in the past - get inside their heads?
Key player: Becky Sauerbrunn
The problems with the US playing 442 without an experienced defensive midfielder and a wide pairing of a forward and a very attack-minded midfielder were made obvious against Australia on Monday, and there's no reason to think Jill Ellis will correct them. That means that individuals are going to have to come up big again, as Sweden will likely set themselves up to take advantage of the USWNT's flaws.
While it would be fair to single out Solo or any of the American goalscoring threats, I'm going with Sauerbrunn here. The FC Kansas City defender - when paired with Julie Johnston - is the experienced leader of the US defense, and her passing ability out of the back was a factor in the key tactical adjustment (feeding the ball to Rapinoe as often as possible) the US made to disrupt the Australian gameplan. Tonight, Sauerbrunn will have to continue to connect her passes, but she'll also have to be sharp due to the presence of Swedish target forward Lotta Schelin. While Johnston may have to do more of the aerial battling, Sauerbrunn needs to show sharp anticipation in judging where the off-the-ball runs based around Schelin's hold-up play are going.
Key question: Will this game be about stars, or about a team?
In terms of individual talent, the US should win this game. Sweden is very good, but they don't have the array of match-winners that the American squad does. However, teams that need individuals to carry them to greatness have a tough time when they're playing a slightly weaker but more organized opponent. That's the case here, as Pia Sundhage's Swedes are in all likelihood going to have the superior gameplan.
That likely means that the big names in the American squad will have to overcome a team that is better set up to win the game as a group. Solo is going to have to make big saves. One or two of the US's great goalscorers - maybe Rapinoe or Christen Press again, or maybe Lloyd, or Alex Morgan, or Sydney Leroux, or Wambach - is going to have to produce a finish that most players simply can't pull off. When your tactics are wrong in soccer, you usually need great one-off plays to overcome that. For the USWNT, that's life at the moment: Either the special players do something amazing, or defeat is a very real threat.
Match date/time: Friday 6/12, 8:00pm Eastern (7:00pm local)
Venue: Winnipeg Stadium (Winnipeg, Canada)
TV: Fox (English), NBC Universo (Spanish)
Online: Fox Soccer 2Go (English, requires subscription), NBC Universo Now (Spanish), NBC Deportes En Vivo Extra (Spanish)
Check back in two hours for our gamethread.