The warning signs had been there all along.
They were evident in Cancun, Mexico, last November. They were there again in Chongqing, China, in January. They could be seen in London as recently as April.
Each of those games ended in a 2-1 loss for the U.S. women’s national soccer team — first to Mexico, then to Sweden, then to England. Each time the message was the same: American players, once regarded as virtually invincible, are invincible no more.
On Wednesday night, in Wolfsburg, Germany, Sweden proved the point, handing the Americans another 2-1 loss, and this time the consequences for the U.S. could be unpleasant.
Instead of playing a relative soccer minnow, Australia, in the quarterfinals of the sixth Women’s World Cup, Coach Pia Sundhage’s U.S. team now has to play a whale: unbeaten, untied and unscored-upon Brazil, in Dresden on Sunday.
Suddenly, the prospects of the U.S. team adding a world championship to those won in 1991 and 1999 do not look as rosy. It was the Brazilians who routed the U.S., 4-0, in the semifinals of the 2007 Women’s World Cup in China.
Brazil has swept through this tournament. Along with host Germany and Sweden, it is 3-0 after the first round. But Brazil’s Coach Kleiton Lima is not altogether satisfied.
“Overall, I don’t think we’re making the most of our technical ability yet, but our defense is 100% solid,” Lima said after Wednesday’s 3-0 win over Equatorial Guinea. “Some people are saying the way we defend is out of date, but we’re solid, we keep it tight, and we have players and strikers who are fantastic on the break. Marta is so obviously focused on winning this World Cup.”
The U.S. remains focused on the same goal but perhaps not quite as confidently.
Wednesday’s defeat, in front of a crowd of 23,468 that included the defending world champion German team and Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, marked the first time in two decades of World Cup competition that the U.S. has lost a first-round match.
“We have great respect for the U.S. team but we knew we could beat them,” Swedish star Lotta Schelin said after goals by Lisa Dahlkvist, on a penalty kick, and Nilla Fischer, on a deflected free kick, had given the Swedes a 2-0 halftime lead.
The U.S. cut the deficit to 2-1 when Abby Wambach shouldered a corner kick by Lauren Cheney into the Swedish net midway through the second half, but it was not enough.
“The best team will be left standing,” Wambach had said before the game.
The Swedes were not content with simply standing. They danced and did a victory lap.
Equally happy were the observing Germans. For them, the outcome was a positive. With the U.S. having to play Brazil in the quarterfinals, one of the two major hurdles standing between Germany and a third consecutive World Cup title will be eliminated.
Sundhage, the former Swedish World Cup player who coached the U.S. team to the gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, was calm after the loss.
“We could have been more patient with our play” was the extent of her criticism.
Wambach, meanwhile, said adversity would only strengthen U.S. resolve.
“That’s kind of been our journey so far, so why change things now?” she said.
Jones reported from Ross-on-Wye, England.