by Steven Goff in Le Havre, France

The U.S. national soccer team’s visit to this port city on the English Channel on Thursday was for the purpose of playing its third and final group match at the Women’s World Cup.

After two breezy victories, however, it felt more like the start of things.

Although the reigning champions won again — 2-0 over Sweden at Stade Oceane — and completed group play in perfect fashion, the opponent was markedly better. Scoring opportunities were more difficult to come by. Goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher was finally tested.

After 90 solid minutes, highlighted by Lindsey Horan’s goal early in the first half and an own goal early in the second, the top-ranked Americans found themselves atop Group F and looking ahead to the knockout stage, four victories from their fourth world trophy.

AD
AD

They have not been severely tested, but with all of the contenders securing passage, the road is going to get rougher.

In the round of 16 Monday in Reims, they will face No. 13 Spain, the Group B runner-up with a 1-1 1 record. A victory would send them to Paris and a potential showdown against France.

“I don’t really care who we are playing,” forward Carli Lloyd said. “Bring it on.”

The absence of competition in a wipeout against Thailand and a convincing triumph against Chile left the United States yearning for a harder game. The result against Sweden (2-1-0) was never much in doubt, but it required additional work.

“We needed this game against a challenging opponent before we left the group,” Coach Jill Ellis said. “Win, lose or draw today, I said to the players, ‘Let’s see if we can feel good about the performance.’ That’s the confidence-builder.”

AD
AD

Her squad set the tone on Horan’s goal in the third minute en route to a ninth consecutive victory and seventh straight shutout. The last time the U.S. team won all three group matches was 2003. Never before had it blanked every group opponent.

Sweden, which entered with the same record as the United States but trailed on the goal-differential tiebreaker, finished second in the group and will play Canada on Monday in Paris.

“We ended on a good note, and we’re excited about that, but we have to put it behind us and onto the next,” midfielder Rose Lavelle said. “We’re hitting our peak at the right time and I feel like we are going to keep growing throughout the tournament.”

AD

Any suggestions the Americans would try to manipulate the path to the July 7 final by finishing second — thus avoiding third-ranked France — were put to rest with a top-choice starting lineup. It was Sweden that rested several regulars, and afterward, Coach Peter Gerhardsson said it was not important to win the group.

AD

Told of Gerhardsson’s comments, Ellis said with a grin, “After the game, that might be a fair comment.”

She added: “If there is a decision to rest players, I don’t think that’s not caring about the game; it’s already thinking ahead. For us, it was very important to think about what was right in front of us.”

After making seven changes between the first and second matches, Ellis selected her first-choice lineup, with the exception of defensive midfielder Julie Ertz, who was nursing a minor hip contusion.

AD

Also, forward Alex Morgan suffered a minor knee injury in the first half and did not return after halftime. Both seem likely to play Monday.

Leading to the match, the Swedes had spoken of their comfort and confidence in playing the United States, of the Americans perhaps overlooking them and of their success over the years in the rivalry.

AD

The Americans, though, crackled from the start. They were fast and fluid, forcing Sweden to chase. Opportunities opened quickly.

In the third minute, Megan Rapinoe served a low corner kick toward the near post. Samantha Mewis, starting in Ertz’s place, made a near-post run and redirected it with her right foot between the legs of a defender.

AD

The ball skipped into the middle of the six-yard box, where the onrushing Horan poked it into the net from close range for her second goal of the tournament.

The Swedes had been wary of U.S. set pieces, with Gerhardsson saying a day earlier that Ellis had the “thickest binder in the world” of designed plays.

Typically, such a play would involve heading-expert Ertz on the case to meet Rapinoe’s placement. With Ertz absent, Ellis went deeper into the binder.

AD

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

The Americans continued to fly, racing in transition, moving the ball side to side and testing Hedvig Lindahl from distance.

AD

When they were sloppy, though, Sweden turned opportunity into threats. Naeher had a few busy moments and her back line was sound under pressure.

Tobin Heath influenced the second goal on a play that required video replay and a scoring change.

Rapinoe targeted Lloyd at the top of the penalty area. Although Lloyd was a half-step offside, play continued without her direct involvement.

A Swedish player deflected the ball to the back side. Heath took possession and worked defender Jonna Andersson with a series of foot fakes before driving an angled bid.

The ball nicked Andersson’s extended foot and carried over Lindahl. Initially, Heath was credited with the goal, but because the attempt might not have been on the target without the deflection, it was ruled an own goal.

AD
AD

The video assistant referee recommended a review to determine whether Lloyd’s positioning should nullify the goal. After a two-minute delay, the goal was certified.

Sweden did not have much to offer in the last 40-plus minutes, leaving both sides to look ahead to the knockout stage.

“We’re building on each performance,” defender Becky Sauerbrunn said. “They’ve gotten a little more difficult each time. Momentum is huge and we’re going to keep riding it.”

In-game highlights

By Jacob Bogage in Washington

Final: U.S. 2, Sweden 0

The Americans have clinched the top spot in Group F with the victory and will play Spain at noon Eastern time on Monday in the round of 16. Sweden finished second in the group and will play Canada at 3 p.m. Monday.

AD

90th minute: Lloyd is denied

Carli Lloyd nearly got one for the road. The veteran American forward sneaked in behind in the 18-yard box and was in one-on-one with Swedish keeper Hedvig Lindahl, but fired a shot right into Lindahl’s chest. Lloyd will have seven minutes of stoppage time to extend her World Cup-record goal streak to seven matches.

AD

83rd minute: Substitution

Mallory Pugh entered for Megan Rapinoe, the Americans’ final substitution of the match.

Scoring change: Own goal, not Heath goal

FIFA ruled the U.S. goal in the 50th minute initially credited to Tobin Heath was an own goal by Jonna Andersson of Sweden (scroll down a bit for the replay).

Another record for USWNT

63rd minute: Substitution

Christen Press is in, replacing Rose Lavelle.

59th minute: Yellow card

Kelley O’Hara was assessed a yellow card for a late challenge.

53rd minute: Heath goal upheld

Match referee Anastasia Pustovytova considered VAR to see if Carli Lloyd — for whom the cross was originally intended — was offside, but upheld the score upon review. It could have been ruled that Lloyd did not interfere with the play.

50th minute: Goal, USA, then VAR

Tobin Heath toyed with the Swedish left back all through the first half, and she finally has struck a blow. Heath corralled a cross that spun long, then took her defender one-on-one toward the six-yard box, then smacked a shot through the near side that caught the keeper by surprise. The play went to VAR, however, to determine if Carli Lloyd was offside.

AD

Halftime substitution

Carli Lloyd has subbed in for Alex Morgan to begin the second half. Morgan had a few solid scoring chances, but couldn’t complete them, and appeared to take a couple of knocks. Lloyd scored twice against Chile in Sunday’s match.

Halftime: U.S. 1, Sweden 0

The U.S. offense appeared primed to pick up where it left off in its first two World Cup matches. Not even three minutes into Thursday’s match against Sweden, Lindsey Horan flicked in a corner kick by Megan Rapinoe to give the Americans a 1-0 lead.

But minutes later, the grind that is Sweden’s defense took hold. This third match is not like the others.

The Americans leads their rival by that single goal after 45 minutes. The Yankees were undoubtedly the aggressor, possessing the ball 66 percent of the time, completing 266 passes and firing 12 shots, three of them on net. But the Swedes earned some counterattacking opportunities, exposing rifts in the U.S. defense before frittering away promising chances. American goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher was pressed into her first decisive moments of the tournament, but none were too challenging.

29th minute: Heath with a nutmeg

Tobin Heath showed off a bit of what makes her one of the most skilled forwards in the world in winning a corner for the Americans.

24th minute: U.S. on the good foot

The U.S.'s offense picked up where it left off against Chile. After a goal in the game’s opening minutes, the Americans already have five shots, three of them on target. They’ve also already earned three corners. But Sweden’s pressure in its attacking half has given the U.S. some concerns. Alyssa Naeher has been active in goal directing traffic among the back four.

U.S. strike is fastest at World Cup

3rd minute: Goal, USA

The Americans strike early. After some persistent pressure in the 18-yard box to open the match, Megan Rapinoe earned a corner, and on the cross, Lindsey Horan slid through the defense to flick a shot past the Swedish keeper.

And we’re off!

The U.S. is looking to even the score after a disappointment against Sweden in the 2016 Olympics, and secure the top seed coming out of Group F.

U.S. lineup announced

The U.S. lineup looks much like it did for the opening match vs. Thailand, with plenty of firepower ready to come off the bench. Alex Morgan will wear the captain’s badge at striker. Carli Lloyd, who scored twice against Chile, could sub in late in the match for another scoring punch.

Postgame reading

Every single word leading up to Thursday’s match has been scrutinized, and there seems to be tension bubbling beneath. “Although it was such an upsetting feeling, I feel like this team needed that,” Long said of its 2016 loss. “You’re going to learn more in your failures than in your successes and I think that we needed that to kind of shape us into this powerful, united team.” (Read more)

The idea the Americans would take into consideration potential matchups in the knockout stage is far-fetched. Their intended message: Bring on all comers. In describing the competitive nature of her squad, which has won eight straight and has not conceded a goal in the past six, Coach Jill Ellis said, “I struggled to tell my team not to tackle each other in training the day before” a game. (Read more)

The knock on the world’s top-ranked team is Naeher’s lack of experience at the World Cup or Olympics. Given the ease of victories against Thailand and Chile — and her need to make three routine saves — some might snicker and say she still hasn’t played in the World Cup. That should change against Sweden. (Read more)

At the World Cup, it’s not just the United States that’s reaping the long-established benefits of Title IX, the federal legislation that in 1972 required equal opportunity for girls and women and, in doing so, laid the foundation for soccer dynasties at North Carolina, Stanford and Portland. Nations around the world have rosters sprinkled with athletes who were recruited by U.S. colleges and have been shaped, in meaningful ways, by NCAA competition. (Read more)

Mindful of the controversy that engulfed the U.S. team after it repeatedly and joyfully celebrated goal after goal after goal in a 13-0 shellacking of Thailand last week, Lloyd and her teammates exchanged hugs and congratulations after the team’s first goal against Chile. But then Lloyd and Lindsey Horan did something else — and it sent a message to all of their critics. (Read more)

Pugh and Lavelle, both goal scorers against Thailand, are teammates not just for this French odyssey but with the Washington Spirit, the National Women’s Soccer League organization based outside the nation’s capital. They share an apartment in Rockville, Md., with another player and are roommates on the Paris leg of the group stage. (Read more)

Long before she blistered the nets Tuesday night with five goals, Alex Morgan had taken a leading role in the run-up to the Women’s World Cup with her voice and presence away from the soccer field. She had become one of the strongest and most eloquent advocates for gender equality within both the U.S. program and global circles. As one of the world’s most recognized female athletes, she had appeared in TV spots and magazine covers, both in uniform and bikini. With nearly 10 million combined followers on Twitter and Instagram, her life and career are open books. On Tuesday, Morgan’s full attention turned to soccer. (Read more)

Even if the 2019 U.S. Women’s World Cup team is as formidable as its victorious predecessors in 1991, 1999 and 2015, its road to the tournament’s final weekend is likely to be far more difficult, given the rise of women’s soccer in Europe. (Read more)