Alex Morgan, US prepare to take on former coach vs. Sweden

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Normally, reunions with good, old friends consist of reminiscing about the wonder years and making up for lost time. On Friday, the U.S. Women’s National Team will reunite with its former head coach, Pia Sundhage. But the reunion may end up being an unpleasant ordeal for the USWNT: Sundhage will be aiming to put a damper on the United States’ 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup campaign, as she leads No. 5 Sweden against the United States at Winnipeg Stadium.

During her time with Team USA, Sundhage led the Americans to gold medals at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics and a runner-up finish at the 2011 World Cup. Being at the helm of the USWNT for many years allowed Sundhage to learn several of the Americans’ strengths and weaknesses — knowledge she will likely use to give Sweden an advantage, not that her country desperately needs it.

Ever since she began her tenure with Sweden, Sundhage has tried to implement a more technical style, likely as an attempt to replicate the success she experienced on the pitch with the United States. Her initiative yielded mixed results, but Sundhage has a well-balanced squad that is strong enough to rival Team USA. Sweden possesses several talented players, such as marquee forward Lotta Schelin, who led the team with 12 goals during the World Cup qualifiers, and dynamic midfielder Kosovare Asllani, who helped her country place fourth at the 2012 Olympics. She will be ready to provide her side with an offensive flair. Sweden will not lack veteran experience, because Nilla Fischer, who can serve as utility player on midfield or defense, and midfielders Caroline Seger and Therese Sjogran will also be available to reinforce their respective sections on the pitch.

Despite Sweden’s 3-3 tie with Nigeria earlier this week, the Swedes will prove to be a tough side to beat, as noted by their impressive World Cup qualification campaign. Sweden went undefeated in its 10 qualifying matches and recorded a plus-31 goal differential, conceding only one goal.

The Americans, who put on an uninspiring  display during their opening match against the Australians, will need to put on solid team performance for the full 90 minutes. The United States cannot afford another lukewarm start, like it did against Australia in the first half, because Sweden, in need of three points, will likely be prepared to capitalize on Team USA’s defensive lapses and bad passes. The Americans need to make a better effort to dictate the pace of the game and maintain possession. Otherwise, any potential turnovers or interceptions on Sweden’s half of the field will allow the Swedes to exploit the Americans’ older legs by catching them on the counter. This counter-attack scenario, however, will likely be a problem only if the American defensive line pushes up too high near the center of field.

U.S. midfielder Megan Rapinoe was a standout player against Australia and scored two goals to help lead her side to a 3-1 victory. The Americans, however, should not attempt solely to provide Rapinoe with service up top as a definite ticket to victory, much like they did with forward Abby Wambach, who was not her usual sharp self against the Aussies. If U.S. head coach Jill Ellis needs offensive options to break any potential stalemates, Cal alumna Alex Morgan is a proven striker who can provide some creativity on the front line. Morgan made her return from injury in the previous match against the Matildas, and more minutes on the pitch will help her recover her form.

Seeing Sundhage in the dugout will likely bring the Americans memories of their glory days with their former coach, but they need to maintain their composure and remain focused on the task at hand. Otherwise, their reunion with Sundhage will truly be unpleasant.

Manny Flores is the assistant sports editor. Contact him at [email protected].