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Unbeaten US looks to keep best foot forward

Despite the smiles, US players are taking tomorrow’s group finale against Sweden seriously. Despite the smiles, US players are taking tomorrow’s group finale against Sweden seriously. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press)
By Nancy Armour
Associated Press / July 5, 2011

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WOLFSBURG, Germany - Rest is nice, winning is better.

The United States plays Sweden in the group stage finale at the Women’s World Cup tomorrow, a game that would seem to have little importance with both teams already through to the quarterfinals. But there is plenty still at stake for the Americans, starting with bragging rights for winning the group.

“We go for a win,’’ US coach Pia Sundhage said yesterday. “Absolutely.’’

The two-time World Cup champions need only a tie against Sweden to win Group C and likely avoid a quarterfinal matchup against Brazil. The Group C winner plays the second-place team in Group D, likely Australia or Norway, while the Group C runner-up gets the Group D winner.

Brazil, runner-up in 2007 and at the last two Olympics, needs only a draw against World Cup newcomer Equatorial Guinea to win Group D.

“I can safely say that there’s not going to be one player or person or staff member from the United States that’s going to say, ‘We want a tie,’ ’’ Abby Wambach said. “We want to win this game because we want to keep the momentum going forward. Obviously, you have to be smart. We want to get some of those 90-minute players some rest if we can do that. But first and foremost, we want to make sure and secure first place out of this group.’’

The United States is 18-4-7 against Sweden, including a 3-0 record in the World Cup. But Sweden beat the US, 2-1, in January, one of three losses in a five-month span after the Americans had gone more than two years without a loss.

Since arriving in Germany, however, the US has had little resemblance to the team that struggled just to get there. Only Japan (six) has scored more than the five goals the Americans had in their first two games. France also has five goals.

Though Wambach and fellow forward Amy Rodriguez have yet to score, the US is getting production from an abundance of players and places. Five players have scored, including defender Rachel Buehler.

“We know that we’re entertaining people,’’ goalkeeper Hope Solo said. “We’re not just winning games. You can see that swagger back in the US team whether it’s the way we celebrate goals, whether it’s the way you can see we’re enjoying the game again. It’s not just that hard-fought, ‘blood and guts glorified’ game. It’s the game we love.’’

Sweden, meanwhile, had tougher-than-expected games against both Colombia and North Korea, and will be without captain Caroline Seger. The midfielder is suspended after picking up her second yellow card, Saturday against North Korea.

Sundhage will have to keep a close eye on Wambach, who is carrying a yellow card and would miss the quarterfinals if she gets another. But Sundhage will be watching her entire lineup closely.

While winning the game is the priority, Sundhage has been preaching a “21 players’’ mantra. As in, it will take all 21 on the squad to win the World Cup.

She put Lori Lindsey into the starting lineup against Colombia and gave Shannon Boxx a break. She has already gotten World Cup rookies Alex Morgan and Tobin Heath onto the field as subs, and found a way to get high-energy Megan Rapinoe significant playing time.

Knowing the Americans are already into the quarterfinals would allow Sundhage to work a few more players into the mix. Or give a breather to those players who get the bulk of the minutes or are already nursing some aches and pains. Wambach (Achilles’) and Heather O’Reilly (groin) both sat out practice yesterday as a precaution.

“We don’t have to force anything, which is good,’’ Sundhage said. “It would be totally different if this was a game that would take us to the quarterfinals but it’s not. We have a chance to play probably some different players.’’

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