If the United States needs any extra motivation heading into Wednesday's Group C finale against Sweden, Germany has given them a target.
On Tuesday, the two-time defending champions put in their best performance of the tournament, jumping out early on France on their way to a 4-2 victory. While the US has strong wins over both North Korea and Colombia, nothing on its group stage resume is anything close to a dominant victory over a fellow contender.
Without a true contender in its group, the US won't be able to match that achievement -- not that achievements matter at this stage. With a win, Pia Sundhage's team will go perfect into the quarterfinals. With a draw, they accomplish the same end. Still, it would be a great confidence boost if the Americans can put up a big result and give them reason to think they're walking step-in-step with Germany.
This is exactly the kind of dynamic that we have expected from the tournament's outset. Yes, we knew we'd have Marta, and the French or Canadians would give us reason to be distracted when the Big Two weren't playing. England always is entertaining (in its own "held down by a culture's perpetually false expectations" kind of way). And Japan was the potential break-out candidate. But the story always was expected to be Germany vs. the US.
So Wednesday's US-Sweden match is less about who will win and more about whether the Americans are up to Germany's level. Based on Tuesday's performance, that level is defined by a more balanced approach than the one built around the now-benched Birgit Prinz. There's more fluidity and movement, and there's no place where the ball is likely to go and be swallowed, killing the team's buildup.
That development should scare a US team that's often outnumbered in midfield, relying too much and too often on the combined 61 years and 260 caps of Carli Lloyd and Shannon Boxx. That duo's job became more difficult when midfielder Megan Rapinoe lost her place in the preferred lineup, replaced by forward Lauren Cheney. Germany always will have three in the middle of the park, and at times more thanks to wide players Kerstin Garefrekes and Lira Bajramaj. Even if Heather O'Reilly can help from her right midfield position, the US has a problem in the middle.
Of course, O'Reilly won't play on Wednesday, out with a groin problem. It now looks like striker Abby Wambach also will sit, an Achilles problem making rest a priority. Neither absence should cost the United States against a Sweden team that will be missing star midfielder Caroline Seger from its engine room -- the Swede is suspended after picking up a second yellow card -- nor should the absences prevent Sundhage from trying to implement the kind of changes she'll need to counter Germany.
Whether those changes are even within this roster's grasp is the most interesting question. When the United States last played Germany -- a 4-0 win last May in Cleveland -- the Germans were noticeably tired. All of their players were at the end of a long club season, while the US stars were yet to reach the halfway point of theirs. The difference in quality was incredible, especially considering the teams had played to a 3-2 US win at the Algarve Cup two months earlier.
Before facing France on Tuesday, Germany had looked vaguely like that tired team that went through the motions in Cleveland. In the first matches, their technical quality was still there. They had talented, drilled players who still would destroy most teams in the world, but their decisions on the ball weren't as quick. Runs off the ball were less frequent, less effective, and as a result, Germany had trouble putting away Canada and Nigeria.
Germany woke up against France. The benching of Prinz solved their problems and gave the tournament a clear favorite and the US a new standard to shoot for.
With its last match of group play, the US needs to start building to that standard. Perhaps Rapinoe, set to make her first start of the tournament, will provide her characteristic injection of energy. Maybe Alex Morgan, set to start for Wambach, will begin to form the partnership with Cheney that will be needed to carry the team through the next World Cup cycle. And maybe the US rises to the occasion, the same way Germany rose to the occasion Tuesday.
But most importantly, the US needs to show it has answers in the middle of the park. Lloyd and Boxx will have to play the heroines or get help from Sundhage. Regardless, Wednesday needs to be the start of a process that prepares the US for its semifinal matchup with Germany.