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WOLFSBURG, Germany — The Americans can’t do things the easy way.
Needing only a tie to avoid Brazil in the quarterfinals, the U.S. fell 2-1 to Sweden on Wednesday night, the team’s fourth loss since November and first ever in group play at the World Cup.
“After, what I said to the team is, my glass is half-full,” U.S. coach Pia Sundhage said. “Even though we lost, we can come out as a winner if we take a different path. ... We really want to play in the final. But we have to play some great games, play some great teams. I really want us to embrace this process. I think the team will get stronger. That’s the plan.
“It’s a little bit different for me to talk about the final,” she added. “That’s what it takes when we take a different road.”
Lisa Dahlkvist converted a penalty and Nilla Fischer scored on a free kick for Sweden, which won Group C and will play Australia on Sunday in Augsburg. Abby Wambach got the U.S. back in the game in the 67th minute with her first goal of the tournament, but as they have all year the Americans squandered too many other chances and now must Brazil on Sunday in Dresden. Brazil was the runner-up to the Americans at the last two Olympics and to Germany at the 2007 World Cup, and is led by five-time FIFA player of the year Marta.
As the final whistle sounded, Sweden’s players rushed onto the field, gathered in a circle and did the dance that’s quickly becoming their tradition. They then took a victory lap around the field, delighting the many Swedish fans in the crowd of 23,468 who whistled and cheered.
“It was one of the better matches,” Sweden coach Thomas Dennerby said. “To get nine points in the group phase, that’s really good.”
The U.S. is a two-time World Cup champion, two-time defending Olympic gold medalist and the No. 1-ranked team. But it’s had a rough few months since being stunned by Mexico in the semifinals of regional World Cup qualifying, needing to beat Italy in a playoff just to get to Germany. The Americans then lost to Sweden in the opener of the Four Nations tournament in January, and dropped their first game to England since 1988.
But they seemed to have regained their mojo in the first two games of the World Cup, scoring five goals and playing with a looseness and joy that hasn’t been seen in recent months.
Still, no offense to North Korea or World Cup newcomer Colombia, the Americans hadn’t seen a team as good as Sweden, either.
“We have great respect for the U.S. team but, at the same time, we know we’re good, too,” Lotta Schelin said.
And they wasted little time showing it.
With German chancellor Angela Merkel watching with the Germany squad, Sweden put the U.S. on its heels early after Amy LePeilbet tripped Schelin in the box in the 14th minute to earn a penalty kick. Dahlkvist took the penalty, curling it into the left side of the net. Hope Solo dived in full stretch, but the ball was just beyond her fingertips.
“I was thinking that she’s smaller than me now in this moment,” Dahlkvist said. “She’s afraid of me.”
The goal snapped Solo’s scoreless streak at 796 minutes, second longest in U.S. history. It also ended a run of eight shutouts, dating back to March 2010.
Sweden is one of the few teams that can match up physically with the U.S., and the Americans didn’t always handle it well. Such as in the 35th minute, when Rachel Buehler was whistled for dragging down Therese Sjogran about 25 yards out. Fischer, filling in as captain with Caroline Seger suspended, hammered a free kick into LePeilbet’s thigh. Solo, already moving to her left, was caught off-guard and could do nothing to stop the ball from bouncing into the net.
“It was very unfortunate,” Solo said. “I felt like I didn’t have a chance to make a play on them, and that’s frustrating.”
The U.S. pulled back a goal in the 67th when Wambach headed — actually, it was more like shouldered — in a corner kick from Lauren Cheney with an assist from the head of Sweden’s Fischer. It was the first goal of the tournament for Wambach and her 10th overall at the World Cup, second among Americans to the 12 scored by Michelle Akers.
“Like I said, if I score and we don’t win, I won’t be happy,” said Wambach, who played despite missing the previous two days of practice with tendinitis in her right Achilles’ tendon.
The Americans pushed hard for the equalizer, repeatedly forcing Hedvig Lindahl to bat balls down or make saves. She punched away a hard shot by Megan Rapinoe in the 54th after Rapinoe neatly sidestepped Sara Thunebro, and World Cup rookie Kelly O’Hara missed a wide-open net from about 8 yards in the 86th.
In the first half, Lindahl punched away Cheney’s cross to Wambach at the far post in the 29th minute. Three minutes later, Amy Rodriguez had a gimme chip over Lindahl, only to see it bang off the crossbar.
“Until the referee blew the whistle, I really thought we were going to equalize,” Wambach said.
Instead, the Americans are facing yet another bumpy road, just as they did in qualifying. At the 2008 Olympics, too. The Americans lost their first game in group play there, then ran off five straight victories, including a 1-0 win in overtime against the Brazilians.
“This team’s not going to give up,” Solo said. “I believe in this team coming back.”