With it, the Americans advanced to the round of 16 having scored more goals over their first three games (18) than any team in Women’s World Cup history. And they did so without conceding one, having shut out Thailand, Chile and Sweden in succession.
It was Sweden, of course, that handed the U.S. women their earliest exit from a global tournament since the first Women’s World Cup was staged in 1991. That was just three years ago, when a defensive-minded Swedish squad ousted the Americans in the quarterfinals of the 2016 Rio Olympics on penalty kicks.
Then-goalkeeper Hope Solo called Sweden “a bunch of cowards” in the aftermath. While Solo is no longer on the U.S. team, it seemed as if a few Swedish players still chafed over the insult in the run-up to Thursday’s game — the fifth consecutive time that the United States and Sweden had met in the group stage of a World Cup.
Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Swedish goalkeeper Hedvig Lindahl said that the Americans “don’t have the mental advantage they had before” and implied that the U.S. women were so focused on reaching the final, they were taking a victory over Sweden for granted.
The United States saved its reply for game-time. And World Cup rookie Lindsey Horan wasted no time.
Just three minutes into the match, veteran Megan Rapinoe sent a corner that glanced off Samantha Mewis to Horan. With a lightning-fast poke of a toe, Horan knocked it in to score the quickest goal in the tournament. In doing so, she punched Sweden and its spirited contingent of flag-waving fans in the gut before their songs reached full voice.
The Americans hadn’t truly been tested until Thursday, routing Thailand, 13-0, and handling Chile, 3-0, with a lineup largely composed of backups.
Against Sweden, they were forced to produce at every position — goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher, as well. And the Americans did, playing with a masterful blend of pace and patience, self-confidence and trust in one another.
They headed to the locker room at the break having outshot Sweden 13-4 and controlled possession 62 percent of the half.
Their second goal, in the 50th minute, was manufactured by the wizardry of Tobin Heath but reclassified by FIFA as an “own goal” for Sweden, the ball having brushed Swedish defender Jonna Andersson on its brilliantly arcing path into the goal.
Fielding its own backup-heavy roster, Sweden kept the pressure on but never seriously threatened the Americans’ 2-0 margin.
If Thursday’s victory represented a measure of vindication to U.S. Coach Jill Ellis, who was at the helm for that 2016 humbling by Sweden, she refused to acknowledge it.
“I don’t have a rearview mirror,” Ellis said when asked about the Olympic quarterfinal loss in Rio. “To me, it’s all about what’s in front of me. I didn’t even give that game a second thought.”
But that defeat was a catalyst of sorts, forcing Ellis to tinker with her lineup over the three years that followed and devise new ways, new strategies for scoring against teams that hunker down on defense.
It has long been a motto of the U.S. women’s national team, handed down from one squad to the next, that true champions learn more from their defeats than their successes.
Much like Ellis, veteran U.S. defender Becky Sauerbrunn said she didn’t step onto Stade Oceane on Thursday with the 2016 quarterfinal defeat to Sweden in her mind. But she was fully cognizant of the two teams’ long history. And she was frank about the ways that Sweden, over that long history, has pushed the Americans to perform, adapt and come up with new solutions.
“We have worked so much on our game, in larger part, because of that  match,” Sauerbrunn said. “Because we bowed out early in the quarterfinals, we had to change and we had to add layers to our game.”
So the satisfaction of Thursday’s victory — and a shutout, to boot — felt especially satisfying.
“We have played them in so many major tournaments, and we’ve won some, and we’ve lost some,” Sauerbrunn said. “It just feels good to know we could play a side like Sweden, with so much history. To be able to have a good performance and get some good goals, it does feel good.”