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U.S. women to face Sweden, and their former coach Pia Sundhage, in soccer quarterfinals

Sweden Coach Pia Sundhage looks on from the sideline during a Group E match against South Africa on Aug. 3.
Sweden Coach Pia Sundhage looks on from the sideline during a Group E match against South Africa on Aug. 3.
(Buda Mendes / Getty Images)

Pia Sundhage is well aware of the U.S. team’s unparalleled success in women’s Olympic soccer. She’s partly responsible for it: When the Americans won their last two gold medals, in Beijing and London, Sundhage was their coach.

She’ll be standing in front of the other bench Friday, coaching Sweden against the U.S. in a quarterfinal in Brasilia. She has no illusion about the difficulty of the task she and Sweden are facing.

“We’re going to play the best team in the world,” Sundhage said Thursday. “Olympic champions and the world champions. That is challenging and inspiring.

“Everybody knows, when it comes to the quarterfinals, anything can happen.”

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Jill Ellis, the current U.S. coach, was Sundhage’s assistant in London and the two remain friendly. The same isn’t necessarily true of some of Ellis’ players, however. Before the Women’s World Cup last summer, Sundhage was quoted in the New York Times making comments critical of midfielder Carli Lloyd, goalkeeper Hope Solo and forward Abby Wambach, who has since retired.

Lloyd took exception to Sundhage’s description of her as “a challenge to coach” and a player whose temperament could be “so, so delicate.”

The coach was complimentary of Lloyd on Thursday, calling her the best player in the world — an honor FIFA also bestowed on the U.S. captain after Lloyd scored three goals in the 2015 World Cup final, giving Ellis the only title Sundhage never won with the Americans.

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Lloyd didn’t respond in kind.

“Pia hasn’t even entered my brain,” Lloyd said Thursday. “All I’m focused on is my performance and our team’s performance. We are a different team than when Pia was here.”

FULL COVERAGE: 2016 Summer Games »

Friday’s winner moves on to the Olympic semifinals. Despite stumbling to a 2-2 draw with Colombia in its last game, the U.S. (2-0-1) comes into the quarterfinals as an undefeated group champion, while Sweden (1-1-1) was blitzed 5-1 by Brazil before playing China to a scoreless tie, advancing to the knockout round as a third-place team.

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Still, Ellis’ team is struggling to find its rhythm, just as it did in the first round of last summer’s World Cup when it tied Sundhage and Sweden, then rolled through the knockout round, outscoring opponents 10-2 in four games to win its second world title.

If the U.S. repeats that performance in Rio, it will win its fourth straight gold medal, becoming the first team to win consecutive world and Olympic titles.

Solo said they’ll need to improve to make that happen.

“We need to do better,” she said. “We’re still passing the ball around the back quite slow. We’re still not using our midfield enough. But we rested some players and we’re going to have fresh legs going into the quarters.”

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Ellis, who has used three lineups in as many games in Rio, probably will start midfield playmaker Tobin Heath again, but she’ll have a tougher decision to make up front, where Crystal Dunn and Mallory Pugh have both played well alongside forward Alex Morgan.

Midfielder Megan Rapinoe, who made some dangerous crosses Tuesday in her first game back from knee surgery, could also play, but the status of center back Julie Johnston, who sat out the last two games with a groin problem, is uncertain.

Follow Kevin Baxter on Twitter @kbaxter11


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