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Soccer

Women’s World Cup: U.S. defeats Sweden in its group play finale

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Defender Kelley O’Hara celebrates with teammates after the United States’ second goal during a 2-0 victory over Sweden at the Women’s World Cup on Thursday.
(Damien Meyer / AFP/Getty Images)

The final game of Women’s World Cup group play Thursday was supposed to be a major test for the U.S.

It turned out to be little more than a pop quiz.

And it was one the Americans aced, defeating Sweden 2-0 before a crowd of 22,418 at Stade Oceane to win their group and advance to the round of 16 unbeaten and unscored upon.

“When you come out of the group stage, we talk about mentality and being healthy,” said coach Jill Ellis, whose team will face Spain on Monday in its first elimination-stage game. “I think we’re in a really good place.”

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Good place? The U.S. is the only country to have won this tournament three times and it has never started a World Cup like this, posting shutouts in all three group games. The Americans have seven shutouts in their last eight Women’s World Cup matches, dating to 2015, and their 18 goals in the first three games in France is a World Cup record.

Sweden was their toughest opponent so far and the U.S. outshot the Swedes 16-7, had the ball nearly 60% of the time and completed more than twice as many passes. Which begs the question: Can anyone here challenge the top-ranked U.S.?

“I don’t know,” Carli Lloyd said. “We’ll see. We’ve got a great squad. It will obviously get tougher and tougher.”

But so will the U.S.

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“We’re hitting our peak,” midfielder Rose Lavelle said. “But just like every other game, we have to take what we can from this game and then put it behind us and move on to the next.

“We’re just going to continue growing throughout the tournament, which is exciting for us.”

And frightening for everyone else.

The goals Thursday came from Lindsey Horan in the third minute and on an own goal off a Tobin Heath shot five minutes into the second half.

Horan’s score came on a designed play that started with a low corner kick from Megan Rapinoe that skipped toward the near post. Samantha Mewis got her back heel on the ball, redirecting it into the path of a charging Horan, who banged it in from the center of the six-yard box.

It was the Americans’ third goal on a corner kick in two games and the third assist of the tournament for Mewis, a surprise starter in place of Julie Ertz.

“We had practiced that a lot, just overloading certain areas, targeting certain areas,” Mewis said.

The U.S. then doubled the lead in the 50th minute, with Heath collecting a looping pass intended for Lloyd just outside the six-yard box, backing Jonna Andersson toward the goal, then chipping a shot that deflected off the Swedish defender’s foot and under the crossbar at the far post from a tough angle.

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After a lengthy video review, Russian referee Anastasia Pustovoytova confirmed the score, which was later ruled an own goal.

On the other end, goalie Alyssa Naeher, who saw only three shots in the first two games, had to make two saves against Sweden, the most difficult coming in first-half injury time when she leaped to her right to punch away Sofia Jakobsson’s curling shot from the right wing.

“We needed this game against a challenging opponent before we left our group,” Ellis said.

Asked whether her team, with 11 World Cup debutantes, might grow overconfident after such a dominant first-round performance, Ellis shook her head.

“This team is firmly rooted on the ground,” she said. “There’s humility. These players have played this game long enough to know that you have to earn every result.”

On Friday the U.S. will head back to Reims, where it opened the World Cup with a 13-0 thrashing of Thailand. The Americans won’t do that against Spain, but even if the road forward is getting tougher, the U.S. may still have to look to themselves for a challenge because they have yet to get one from the rest of the field.

“Target’s on the back,” said Lloyd, who is playing in her fourth World Cup. “We’re expected to win. Anything less is considered a failure in everyone’s eyes.”

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And failure is something this team knows little of, having lost just once in the last 23 months and only once in World Cup play since 2007.

“We accomplished what we wanted to accomplish.” Lavelle said of the group-stage sweep. “Each game got harder as we went on, which was great. It kind of gives us a chance to grow into the tournament.

“We feel like we ended on a good note and we’re excited for the next part of this tournament.”

kevin.baxter@latimes.com | Twitter: @kbaxter11


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