ZURICH – This was not how things were supposed to play out, but now it is reality.
The United States' 2-1 loss to Sweden on Wednesday means the Americans will face Brazil in the quarterfinals. That's two of the three 'super powers' in women's soccer squaring off at a stage where an exit for either would be utter disappointment. That is a quarterfinal match-up that in 2007 was a semifinal clash and in 2004 and 2008 was an Olympic final. Now it marks what will be an all too early exit for one of the two titans.
Looking at the glass as half full (and looking much farther down the line than would be considered prudent at this stage), the United States has avoided a potential semifinal with Germany. In fact, should both teams make a run on their sides of the bracket, it would set up a dream final between host Germany and the United States.
But it is presumptuous to look past the quarterfinal stage, particularly with the likes of Marta and her Brazilian teammates staring down the United States.
The US remembers all too well the 4-0 thrashing it received at the hands of Brazil in the 2007 Women's World Cup semifinals. On that day, Marta scored twice and sent her team through to the final against Germany, where the Brazilians lost 2-0.
So this is certainly a game with history, perhaps one that is disappointingly "early" in the tournament. Had the US won the group, this could have been a finals matchup.
On paper this looks like one of the top three teams in the world is about to crash out of the tournament, but in reality it is anything but that.
Brazil's Erika, right, dances with Brazil's Aline after scoring the opening goal. (AP Phtoto/Michael Probst)
For the past few weeks (and even months) there has been talk of how the gap in women's soccer between the top five teams and the rest of the world has closed. It has to an extent (although maybe not as much as everyone thinks), which means that heavyweight match-ups like this are bound to start happening.
Just look at the other side of the bracket where No. 2 Germany has a quarterfinal draw against world No. 4 Japan. And the France-England quarterfinal means that one of those teams is going to be in its first-ever semifinal match-up.
Sure, the road to the final - should the Americans advance that far - is going to be tough, but that is how it should be. Alternatively, the US could have faced a weaker Australia team in the quarterfinals and then would have had to deal with (potentially) the Germans on home soil in the semifinals.
The US women, through Nike, launched an advertising campaign just before the World Cup began entitled "Pressure Makes Us." This is the pressure that is going to come with being the world's top ranked team, where anything short of a World Cup title - something the US has not won in 12 years - is considered failure.
And honestly, as much as this matchup is going to be hyped, it's very winnable for the United States. Brazil has not exactly been stellar this tournament. Kleiton Lima's squad followed up a very average outing against Australia with a poor first half against Norway before a second half offensive explosion. Even against Equatorial Guinea, Brazil got off to a slow start before finishing three times in the final 45 minutes to cruise to victory.
The man-marking scheme employed by Equatorial Guinea on Wednesday is a tactic used to contain Marta (above) in Women's Professional Soccer. (Photo: Petr David Josek/Getty Images)
Brazil is a team that has a strong, three-prong attack in Rosana, Cristiane and five-time FIFA World Player of the Year Marta, but it is also extremely susceptible in the back.
Lima plays a 3-4-3 with a man-marking system in the back, meaning there is a lot of space in behind the Brazilian midfield and out on the flanks, where the wide midfielders are asked to cover space from 18-to-18 yard box. The United States can beat such a system with speed and quick diagonal switches of attack, which the Americans are more than capable of doing.
Heather O'Reilly should have plenty of space on the right flank and Amy Rodriguez's pace up top should cause fits for the Brazilian back line. Inserting the speedy Alex Morgan in the second half or Megan Rapinoe would only add to that.
At that point, it comes down to taking Marta out of the game. That is certainly easier said than done, but WPS defenders such as Tina Ellertson and Kia McNeill have shown that marking Marta tightly and not being afraid to get physical and foul her frustrates the world's best player. Rachel Buehler, or whoever decides to step up, could fill that role.
Nothing from here on out will be easy for the United States. Should the Americans beat Brazil they are looking at a semifinal against France or England. Both of those are better options than Germany but would still pose a threat (as England showed in defeating the US 2-1 earlier in the year).
And to completely look way too far ahead, this scenario would set-up a "dream final" between the United States and Germany. Or Brazil and Germany.
But while the Americans might be slightly favored in Sunday's quarterfinal, they could also be looking at their first ever quarterfinal exit. And if that happens, surely a firestorm of "experts" will tell us how it shows just how far the Americans have fallen from their once untouchable status. Really, it would just mean that one team had to lose in a battle of two of the top three squads in the world.