ROME – The United States and Sweden face off on Wednesday for the chance to win Group C and likely avoid Brazil in the quarterfinals. With both teams already through to the quarterfinals, the only question is who will top the group.
Naturally, that leads to the debate of whether teams should rest players or go after three points with a full strength squad. Somehow, this continues to be a dilemma, but there is no reason it really should be.
Sweden and the United States can not only gain positive momentum heading into the quarterfinals, but the winner of the group will likely avoid Brazil, which is far from a team either the US or Sweden wants to see that early in the tournament.
Should United States Head Coach Pia Sundhage rest players just because a quarterfinal spot is already clinched? Absolutely not. If players like Heather O'Reilly and Abby Wambach are nursing injuries it is absolutely understandable to give them a rest. At the end of the day, advancing is the true key.
But why would this team not try to win the group? The US is finally getting into a groove and clicking on all cylinders. It is not worth breaking apart that momentum that the United States is currently enjoying just to give players a rest.
With that said, Sundhage does not look to even be entertaining the idea of using this Sweden match to toy with the line-up, which is a good thing. Even if she was, the United States is a deep enough squad to carry on without too much of a lapse in talent.
The main problem with changes is a hit to team chemistry, which could suffer with a temporary line-up overhaul. It sounds as if the US will be at nearly full strength on Wednesday, thought the minor injuries to O'Reilly and Wambach may see the two rested.
After a slow start to the tournament in the first 45 minutes against North Korea, the United States has convinced while dispatching the North Koreans (2-0) and Colombia (3-0). The Americans were part unlucky, part wasteful to not run up a bigger score on Colombia, but they were still dominant.
Most encouragingly for Sundhage has to be that the quality did not drop in the second half against Colombia when she brought on her substitutes. Megan Rapinoe added a spark to a U.S. team that was already peppering Colombia goalkeeper Sandra Sepulveda.
So with Wambach and O'Reilly likely resting, what should Sundhage do? Inserting Rapinoe for O'Reilly makes sense as a straight swap; it's a speedy flank midfielder for a speedy and arguably more creative flank midfielder.
A straight swap for Wambach would likely see Alex Morgan enter the fray, but it may not be that simple. Tobin Heath put in a solid 28 minutes of play on Saturday when she replaced O'Reilly and could be given a shot in the starting line-up. Such a scenario would see Heath slide to the outside midfield position and push Lauren Cheney up to her more comfortable forward position. That would also continue the trend of Morgan being seen as a super sub rather than a 90-minute striker.
Hope Solo and the US defense continue to put up shutouts and should be kept intact against Sweden. After all, Wednesday is the first serious challenge of the tournament for the United States. While North Korea provided an early scare, the young squad ended up being too much raw talent and not enough experience to give the Americans a true test. And Colombia was exactly what the world expected of it: A young, inexperienced team that lacked any serious quality or depth.
So the US has a lot to prove on Wednesday. The chance to beat the No. 5-ranked Swedes (who have been underwhelming thus far) as well as the chance to avoid Brazil in the quarterfinals is what is at stake.
A draw will be enough for the U.S. to win the group, but the Americans will want more from Wednesday's encounter. Keeping another clean sheet will be at the top of their list, but so too will finishing following a display of troublesome misses against Colombia.
However, one thing is for sure: Wednesday has nothing to do with resting players. For this US team - one serious about winning this Women's World Cup - Wednesday is a chance to stay perfect against a familiar foe. And avoiding Marta and Brazil in the next stage is critical, too. The US players have been torched by Marta enough through the Women's Professional Soccer season.