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U.S. Women’s World Cup team sees a familiar foe in Sweden and Pia Sundhage

Midfielder Lauren Holiday (12) awaits Christen Press after the forward scored the tiebreaking goal Monday vs. Australia. (John Woods/Canadian Press via AP)

WINNIPEG, Manitoba – The United States and Sweden have forged a long-lasting rivalry in women’s soccer, pioneering partners for the sport who have crossed paths annually for decades.

With a fresh layer of overlapping personalities, Friday’s World Cup meeting will inject another element into the spirited conflict.

Facing one another in the group stage for the fourth consecutive tournament, the Americans are seeking to secure early passage to the knockout round after defeating Australia on Monday while the Swedes are in need of points following a draw in the opener against Nigeria.

[Full Women’s World Cup group standings and scores]

The most notable bond between the teams is on the sideline: Swedish Coach Pia Sundhage guided the United States from 2008 to 2012 and former assistant Jill Ellis now runs the U.S. program. Ellis’s top assistant is Tony Gustavsson, a Swede who also assisted Sundhage.

[Ellis played soccer with the boys. Now she leads U.S. women’s team.]

The connection carries to the field, as well. Players from both teams have competed in pro leagues in the respective countries. And for U.S. starters Christen Press and Meghan Klingenberg, their growth in the Swedish league was largely responsible for a rise to prominence with the national team.

“It’s a really special place for me,” said Klingenberg, a 26-year-old left back who played for European power Tyreso between 2012 and last summer before returning stateside to serve with the Houston Dash in the National Women’s Soccer League.

“I really love Sweden. I loved the league, I loved the team and I loved the players I played with. We know them really well. They are incredible friends and incredible people. It adds an extra edge to the game, a sense of bragging rights. We know it’s going to be fun.”

Press, a 26-year-old forward for the Chicago Red Stars, was in Sweden at the same time as Klingenberg and, for the last part of her stay, was Klingenberg’s teammate. They lived in a group home they dubbed the “House of Happiness.”

At the time, Press was on the outer edge of the national team. Her performance in Sweden elevated her prospects.

“The thing I looked back at the most is playing with the freedom and without the pressure of constantly looking at the national team and how I could get here,” she said. “When I left for Sweden, I left that behind to develop in other ways and allowed me to play with joy.”

That joy and subsequent development on a club that included Brazilian superstar Marta parlayed into a regular U.S. role last year. In Monday’s Group D opener against Australia, Press scored the go-ahead goal in the 61st minute.

“She went to Sweden and became a better player,” said Sundhage, who passed over Press for the 2011 World Cup but named her an alternate on the 2012 Olympic squad. “She is so much better today.”

Ellis had encouraged Press to make the most of her opportunity overseas. “She went away and worked on her craft,” the current coach said.

Press is thankful for the experience. “I owe a lot to the country for being here at this moment. It helped me grow.” But, she added, “this is the World Cup, and that trumps everything.”

Press’s familiarity with Swedish players is beneficial, though Swedish forward Kosovare Asllani noted that “our defense knows a lot about her too.”

Sundhage, who won two Olympic gold medals in her U.S. tenure, played down the benefits of her familiarity with the American program and players.

“The danger is you are so eager to figure out how they think, you lose your chance to play your own game,” she said. “So that is a balance.”

During their years working together, Ellis said she learned patience from Sundhage. If a practice wasn’t go well, Sundhage would let the players figure it out before making adjustments. “I would’ve probably changed the drill 10 minutes ago!” Ellis said.

Klingenberg exchanged text messages this week with former Tyreso teammate Caroline Seger, Sweden’s captain. The purpose? Arrange a jersey exchange after the match.

When the opening whistle sounds, however, friendship will be tossed aside.

“It’s fun playing against your friends and it’s fun seeing your teammates again,” Klingenberg said, “but we want to win the World Cup, and this is another game on the way to doing that.”

Group notes: The NWSL’s Washington Spirit signed World Cup forward Hayley Raso (Australia) and defender Josephine Chukwunonye (Nigeria). They will join the club following the tournament.

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