Cowardly or not, Sweden’s defensive strategy against the United States got the job done.
he Swedes stymied the powerful American attack and advanced to the women’s soccer semifinals at the Olympics, leaving the U.S. team empty-handed and with their earliest exit from a major tournament.
“That’s the best team in the world. But for once they didn’t go the whole way through,” Sweden coach Pia Sundhage said. “They played more attacking football than we did. We defended very well. And the fact that it went to penalty kicks says something about our defending.”
Sundhage certainly knows the U.S. team. After all, she coached the Americans for five years and won gold medals at the Beijing and London Olympics. Current U.S. coach Jill Ellis was her assistant.
The three-time defending champion United States had been the clear favorites in Brazil to become the first team to win an Olympic gold following a Women’s World Cup title.
After the loss, the attention fell on U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo for comments she made about Sweden’s tactics to go on the defensive, saying she thought they were “a bunch of cowards.”
“We had that style of play when Pia was our coach. I don’t think they’re going to make it far in the tournament. I think it was very cowardly,” Solo said. “But, they won. They’re moving on. And we’re going home.”
While the “park the bus” strategy is often debated in soccer, Ellis simply drew the inevitable conclusion that it was successful.
“The game is the game, so I think tactically that’s the coach’s prerogative, the coach’s choice,” Ellis said. “They look at their personnel and they determine a game plan based on that. And I think to take us to penalty kicks is probably a good strategy, because then it becomes a crapshoot, right?
“Can I criticize or knock someone for their tactics? No, that’s their choice.”
On Saturday, U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati told Sports Illustrated that Solo’s remarks were “highly inappropriate and not in line with the expectations of U.S. Soccer or the ideals of the Olympic movement.”
At a news briefing in Rio de Janeiro, IOC spokesman Mark Adams described Solo’s outburst as “disappointing.” However, he added that “people are free to say those things. We wouldn’t stop their right to express themselves, within boundaries, obviously.”
Lost in all the postgame drama was the spectacular play of Sweden goalkeeper Hedvig Lindahl, who plays club soccer for Chelsea. The 33-year-old national team veteran turned away six shots on goal before prevailing in the shootout.
“You’ve got to be pumped if you win against the world champions. Just playing against the U.S. on paper you think, `Oh my God, this is going to demand something special from me,”’ Lindahl said. “I think it’s something that happens automatically, you get really inspired and focused. It brings out the best of me, at least, when I play against the U.S.”
Sweden had only beaten the United States five times before Friday’s quarterfinal meeting, which the team won 4-3 on penalties following a 1-1 draw.
The Swedes, who won bronze in 2004, face a considerable challenge in their next match against host Brazil and the country’s star player, Marta. The Brazilians defeated Australia on penalties.
In the group stage, Brazil beat Sweden 5-1. Marta scored twice in that game, but more defensive tactics could be coming from Sweden.
“You always have to take into account the opponents,” Sundhage said. “We played against the world champions, so that’s one reason we chose to play the way we did.”