The second-ranked U.S. Women's National Soccer team is back in action Friday at the World Cup. The U.S. has a critical game against fifth-ranked Sweden in Winnipeg, Canada. It's perhaps the marquee matchup of the opening round.
Not only are both teams highly ranked and expected to do well; there's added intrigue and drama. Consider the intrigue:
- The Swedish coach is Pia Sundhage, who coached the U.S. until 2012.
- She led the U.S. to Olympic gold in 2008 and 2012, as well as a runner-up finish in the previous World Cup. In 107 games under Sundhage, the U.S. lost only six times.
The drama came in a bit of trash talk about some of Sundhage's former players. In a New York Times profile, the beloved (by players and fans) coach criticized several key U.S. starters.
- On one of the team's top midfielders: "Carli Lloyd was a challenge to coach."
- She criticized star goalkeeper Hope Solo's ongoing off-the-field legal skirmishes.
- On star forward Abby Wambach, Sundhage said, "I told her: 'If I stayed, you would be a sub. The best sub ever. But a sub.' There was no question about that in my mind."
The comments became media fodder the next day during a U.S. Soccer news conference with current head coach Jill Ellis. As my colleague Shereen Marisol Meraji reported Friday on Morning Edition:
"Ellis says, yeah, she was briefed about Sundhage's comments. 'I think I've made it pretty clear that distractions don't really creep into my mind when I'm trying to prepare my players and my team for the game.' "
Defender Lori Chalupny brushed off the suggestion that Sundhage's comments provide the U.S. added incentive to beat Sweden. "When you're at a World Cup, there's no extra motivation needed," Chalupny said.
If the U.S. defeats Sweden, it would all but guarantee the U.S. would advance to the knockout stage. Sweden is looking for a win following its disappointing 3-3 tie with Nigeria on Monday.
Playing conditions at the six host cities across Canada have generally been delightful, with highs in the 60s and 70s. But down on the pitch, it's like being at a different latitude. The artificial turf, made of rubber and plastic, radiates heat. In at least two games, the field temperatures reportedly soared above 120 degrees. The U.S. coaches have asked FIFA to water the turf to cool it down.
The television audience for this World Cup is booming. FIFA says the opening games have attracted more viewers than those in 2011. While that's true, attendance at some stadiums has been lackluster. At a double-header in Montreal featuring Brazil and star player Marta, only 10,000 fans showed up. The games with the biggest attendance have involved host country Canada and the first U.S. game (which given its proximity is almost like a "home" game).