Opening clash gives US chance to avenge loss

Defender Becky Sauerbrunn in high spirits after the United States thrashed Mexico 4-0 in their final warm-up game on July 5 in East Hartford, Connecticut. The team will open their Tokyo campaign on the back of a 44-match unbeaten streak, their second
Defender Becky Sauerbrunn in high spirits after the United States thrashed Mexico 4-0 in their final warm-up game on July 5 in East Hartford, Connecticut. The team will open their Tokyo campaign on the back of a 44-match unbeaten streak, their second longest.PHOTO: USA TODAY SPORTS

TOKYO • United States captain Becky Sauerbrunn said the pain of their 2016 Olympic quarter-final loss to Sweden was driving her on ahead of the opening game between the two countries at the Tokyo Games today.

The opening ceremony starts on Friday but the men's and the 12-team women's football competition, as well as the baseball and softball events, commence earlier.

Sauerbrunn was part of the team beaten 4-3 on penalties by Sweden five years ago in Brazil, a loss that snapped a run of three successive Olympic titles for the US.

The defeat still stings for the defender.

"I think what happened in 2016 was one of the worst results the senior national team have had in an international tournament," said the 36-year-old at the pre-match press conference.

"For me, it lit a fire going into 2019 and 2020... and going into this. It's rich that we get to play them (Sweden) in our first game."

Today's match at the Tokyo Stadium will be the sides' ninth meeting at the World Cup or Olympics, making the Swedes the Americans' most frequent foe at a major tournament.

"Sweden in general are a great squad, so I'm excited we get to see them again," said Sauerbrunn, set to win her 189th international cap.

"They've got dynamic forwards. I'm just really looking forward to the battle. They're special players, (Stina) Blackstenius, (Sofia) Jakobsson, (Lina) Hurtig..."

The US have won four of six gold medals since the introduction of women's football to the Olympic programme in 1996, and were also runners-up to Norway in 2000.

They are also the reigning world champions and while they will not have the same squad who earned a record fourth women's World Cup in 2019, the same spine exists.

Co-captain Megan Rapinoe is arguably the most recognisable member of the 22-player team who also include forwards Alex Morgan, who gave birth to her first child in May last year, and Carli Lloyd.

Coach Vlatko Andonovski has also seamlessly replaced the long-serving Jill Ellis, winning 22 of 23 games since taking over in October 2019.

The US have conceded just four goals in that time, with Sweden accounting for three of them. They last met in Stockholm in April, with the game ending 1-1, but the Americans' form gives Sauerbrunn confidence they are ready for another deep run.

"I think our team are very fortunate to have played as many games as we have," said the 2012 Olympic gold medallist.

"It's hard to replicate a game scenario. It has allowed us to form chemistry and work on tactics and dig down into those details that are so important. (But) going into a tournament, you never know what's going to happen."

Like the Americans, Sweden have brought a vastly experienced team to Japan. The Rio 2016 silver medallists, who also reached the semi-finals of the World Cup in 2019, will be led by the veteran Caroline Seger, their all-time record holder with 215 international appearances.

Sweden have held their own against the US in recent times, with seven of the past eight clashes decided by one goal or fewer and the 36-year-old midfielder is expecting a similarly tight game.

"The US bring the best when they need to be the best," said Seger. "It's going to be a very tough game for us tomorrow but we're going to be prepared.

"I just know that all the games we've played against them, we've been very good. We know we have to be prepared for those games and step up to a level that is very high. It's going to be very intense."

Australia take on New Zealand in the other game in Group G, with the top two from each of the three sections advancing to the quarter-finals, along with two third-placed sides.

Reigning champions Germany did not qualify, while Japan return, this time as hosts, after missing out five years ago and face Canada in Group E in Sapporo today.

Britain will field a team comprised primarily of English players as they prepare for debutantes Chile in the other group game.

In Group F, European champions and World Cup finalists the Netherlands will make their Olympic debut in Miyagi prefecture against Zambia, who are also playing on this stage for the first time .

China v Brazil will be the other Group F game. Both Tokyo and Sapporo have banned spectators from attending events, so Miyagi Stadium will be one of the few venues that will welcome fans.

On the presence of fans, Brazil striker Marta, who is making her fifth appearance at the Olympics, said: "It's an extra motivation and gives us more fuel."



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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 21, 2021, with the headline 'Opening clash gives US chance to avenge loss'. Subscribe