The United States is the two-time reigning tournament champions and ranked No. 1 in the world. But their lackluster play in the group stage stopped the Americans from winning their group, which knocked them down to second and a Sunday match against Sweden in the round of 16.
Sweden is ranked third in the world and won its group by sweeping all three games. The seventh World Cup meeting between the two teams — the most frequent matchup in tournament history — will be played in Melbourne, Australia.
Netherlands, meanwhile, is ranked ninth in the world and faces South Africa in Sydney. The Dutch were runners-up to the United States in the 2019 World Cup final.
“Everything is related to our ambition as a football country,” Netherlands coach Andries Jonker said through a translator. “Being part of the top-10 in the ranking, that’s my goal, and if you want to achieve that, you need to show something and we want to do that in our way.”
One of the top players in women’s soccer will end her World Cup career after the match between the United States and Sweden.
Megan Rapinoe, the Golden Boot winner of the 2019 tournament with six goals and three assists for the Americans, has said she will retire after the World Cup. Same for Sweden midfielder Caroline Sege r, who said her fifth World Cup will be her last.
Both teams want to win Sunday to ensure their superstar centerpiece can continue in the tournament. For Seger, the World Cup is the one gap on her resume.
Seger’s 235 appearances for Sweden are the most for any female player in Europe, and although she has two Olympic silver medals and two World Cup bronze medals, Sweden has never won a major tournament. Seger’s teammates don’t want to see her career end without a chance to play for the World Cup title.
“We get very, very motivated by that,” defender Nathalie Bjorn said. “We will have full focus on Sunday. We will do everything we can as a team, as individuals, then we will make sure we knock out the U.S.”
The 38-year-old Seger has been struggling wit a calf problem all year and trained alone in the two days of practice leading into the showdown with the U.S.
Rapinoe, meanwhile, has taken on a smaller role for the Americans in her final tournament. Also 38, she was a substitute in the United States’ first and third games of group play and didn’t get off the bench in the middle match.
American striker Alex Morgan said both Rapinoe and Seger have had “incredible” careers.
“I’m very optimistic about our chances tomorrow, but regardless, these are players that have really changed the game,” Morgan said. “Not only in Sweden and the U.S. but globally. Having been able to play with both of them, they’re great teammates and have been leaders for so long at the highest stage. They’re huge impact players.”
The U.S. scored just four goals in the opening stage, but Rapinoe said she wasn’t overly concerned about what has appeared to be a lackluster start to the tournament — the team still managed to advance. And she clearly didn’t want her World Cup journey to end just yet.
“We got out of the group what we wanted to get out of the group, which was to get to the next round,” Rapinoe said. “Obviously, we want to win the games. Obviously, we want to play great and score a bunch of goals. And we didn’t do that. So we know that that can be better.”
The U.S. will play without Rose Lavelle, who picked up her second yellow card of the tournament in the group stage finale and has to sit out against Sweden.
The Americans also trained without veteran defender Kelley O’Hara on Saturday.
Despite the U.S. team’s struggles, Sweden isn’t expecting anything less than the best.
“We’re super excited. We’re playing against the U.S., they’re No. 1 in the world, you can never underestimate them,” Sweden midfielder Kosovare Asllani said.
Netherlands is trying to finish one spot higher in the Women’s World Cup than it did in 2019, when the Dutch lost to the United States in the championship match.
The first step in the round of 16 is No. 54-ranked South Africa, which notched its first win in a World Cup in a group-stage finale. A 3-2 win over Italy advanced the Banyana Banyana to the knockout stage for the first time in team history.
“They fought like warriors. They fought like the heroines that we know that they are,” South Africa coach Desiree Ellis said. “They fought to be historically remembered and they’ve made history, not just getting our first win, but going to the round of 16 and that is freaking amazing.”
This is only the second World Cup appearance for South Africa, but its play in the group stage has the Banyana Banyana believing they can hold their own against the Dutch.
“Going into the round of 16, you realize that anything is possible,” captain Refiloe Jane said. “It’s knockout stages. You want to keep on fighting as a team, keep on reaching for one another and not lose sight of any of the possibilities that lie ahead.”
For Netherlands, central defender Stefanie van der Gragt is hoping to extend her tournament as she plans to retire after the tournament.
“I defend with all that I have,” van der Gragt said. “I do the best I can for the team.”
Jonker isn’t thinking about van der Gragt possibly making an early exit.
“We can win against everybody, so we’re not giving you any consideration that (Sunday) might be the last game — not at all. She has to play a few more games,” Jonker said.
Netherlands is expected to have Lineth Beerensteyn back after the striker missed two matches with injury, but it was unclear if Jonker would use the Juventus player or stay with the same lineup. The Dutch allowed only one goal in group play.
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