U.S. Completes Perfect Women’s World Cup Group Stage With Win Over Sweden

They scored 18. Conceded zero. Wowed millions. Disappointed very few. The U.S. women are moving on to the knockout rounds of the 2019 World Cup after 270 minutes of nearly flawless soccer.

The Americans completed a perfect group stage on Thursday with a 2-0 victory over Sweden. Their superiority was even more comprehensive than the scoreline suggests.

And while the USWNT’s goals were somewhat fluky, their dominance was anything but.

Lindsey Horan put the U.S. ahead inside three minutes:

Forty more minutes of, primarily, U.S. control and chance-creation didn’t yield a second goal. But a controversial non-call and a deflection did after halftime. And the USWNT cruised from there.

It’ll move on to play Spain in the Round of 16 on Monday at Noon ET. If all goes well there – back in Reims, where the U.S. smashed Thailand 13-0 – the tournament favorite will move on to likely meet its top challenger, France, in the quarterfinals.

But this USWNT fears nobody. Nor should it.

Thursday’s test was billed as the biggest yet. The Americans passed it with ease, even without arguably their most important player. Julie Ertz was sidelined by a minor hip contusion. The midfield was still dominant without its enforcer.

There were only two blemishes on Thursday’s performance. One was the knock start striker Alex Morgan took in the first half. She was removed at halftime, replaced by Carli Lloyd. But it’s unlikely there is any serious injury concern.

The other was final-third imprecision. Morgan wasn’t great while she was on the field. Megan Rapinoe was off her game. But the second goal arrived five minutes into the second half. It locked the U.S. in atop Group F. And none of the nit-picked shortcomings mattered.

U.S. goes up 2-0 thanks to idiotic rule

The result remained in doubt until the 50th minute, when Tobin Heath’s deflected cross looped over Swedish goalkeeper Hedvig Lindahl and into the net. It was eventually – correctly – ruled an own goal. The U.S. won’t care.

But that wasn’t the subject of the controversy. Carli Lloyd’s influence on the buildup was.

Lloyd was clearly in an offside position when Megan Rapinoe sent in a cross from the left. She never touched the ball, but her presence required a Swedish defender to attempt to clear the ball. That attempt failed, the ball came to Heath, and seconds later it was in the back of the net.

Lloyd – who, again, was in an offside position – clearly impacted the play.

But by rule, the defender’s “deliberate” attempt to play the ball precluded any offside decision. No matter, according to soccer’s lawmakers, that the reason she had to “deliberately” play the ball was that if she didn’t, Lloyd could have redirected it at goal.

The U.S. benefitted from the rule. But that doesn’t make it any less nonsensical.

Is Sam Mewis too good to bench?

For the better part of a year, Jill Ellis’ first-choice midfield has been clear and relatively uncontroversial. Julie Ertz is the destroyer. Lindsey Horan is the box-to-boxer. Rose Lavelle is the playmaker. And Sam Mewis, when those three were healthy, has been on the bench.

But Horan was recovering from an injury last month. Becky Sauerbrunn’s minor knock pushed Ertz back to center back against Thailand. Ertz’s slight quad contusion kept her out on Thursday against Sweden. All paved the way for Mewis, who scored twice against South Africa and again vs. New Zealand in warmup friendlies. She bagged two in the demolition of Thailand. The rumblings – How could Ellis possibly bench her? – began.

Thursday’s performance, though, was Mewis’ best yet. She was clean and decisive on the ball. She pinged cross-field balls and slid in Alex Morgan with a precise through-ball. She unleashed one rocket of a shot that troubled Lindahl. She presented Lloyd with a glorious chance to extend her record-breaking goal streak late on.

Surely such an influential player has to start … right?

Superficially, the answer is yes. On the other hand, though, Lavelle was just as good on Thursday. Horan is the reigning NWSL MVP, and arguably the USWNT’s most talented player. Ertz has no equal, and is almost undroppable.

We’ll find out on Monday. And as much as it is a dilemma, it’s an outstanding dilemma to have. The U.S. is humming through the World Cup, and showing no signs of slowing down.