DEAUVILLE, France — The idea of trying to throw a match or plot an easier course to the 2019 Women's World Cup final made Jill Ellis shake her head. The United States women's national team coach said that is a risky game to play.
"I think if you get too much into manipulating or planning or overthinking something, I just don't think that's a good message," Ellis said. "You can't overthink this. And deciding to come second or manipulating a score, I just — I think that can be dangerous.
"The team in front of you is the team in front of you. Whether you play team X in group play, whether you play them in semis or finals or quarters or 16s, you've got to play everybody and you've got to be prepared to play everybody to win this thing. So, I don't think there's plotting out a dream path or something like that. The draw is what it is and we navigate whoever's in front of us."
The next opponent in front of the U.S. is Sweden, a team nearly every U.S. player has referenced in the lead-up to this World Cup. The USWNT lost to Sweden in the quarterfinals of the 2016 Olympics and said they never want to feel that way again.
Beating or drawing Sweden would give the U.S. first place in Group F, and set the Americans on a potential collision course with France, ranked fourth in the world by FIFA, and third-ranked England before getting to the final.
France already took first place in Group A and will face one of the third-place teams that advance to the Round of 16. If England beats Japan on Wednesday for first place in Group D, it will play a third-place team in the next round as well. Meanwhile, the U.S. would play second-place team Spain, which is ranked No. 13 and finished below Germany in Group B. A win over Spain could trigger showdowns with France and England.
But if the U.S. lost to No. 9 Sweden and finished second in the group, it would compete on the other side of the bracket. On paper, that path looks easier. There's a potential matchup with No. 2 Germany in the quarterfinal, but Germany hasn't looked quite as strong as the other top-four teams so far this tournament. The other teams that could stand in the way of a final appearance on that side of the bracket would be No. 5 Canada, No. 7 Japan, No. 8 Netherlands or No. 15 Italy.
But U.S. forward Carli Lloyd, who is playing in her fourth World Cup, said the game has changed and she's seen "a major tactical shift" among teams in this year's tournament. She also listed Italy among the teams that have impressed so far and called it "potentially a little bit of a dark horse."
"I think a lot of teams are looking really good, ya know, even Sweden knocking the ball around," Lloyd said. "Norway is looking really good. ... You're really seeing the tactical aspect of the game change. I think that's the biggest thing."
The rankings aren't a reliable indicator of how things will play out in the sport's biggest tournament, either. For example, Chile is ranked five spots lower than No. 34 Thailand, but played much stronger games against the U.S. and Sweden. Italy also took down No. 6 Australia 2-1 in it's opening group match. And No. 38 Nigeria just played France to a tight 1-0 finish Monday night, with the host country coming out with a victory only because it got to retake a missed penalty after video review caught the goalkeeper off her line on the first attempt.
"This game is a crazy game, and you have to bring it every single match," Ellis said. "And you see upsets, and you see, ya know, Thailand almost knocked Australia out of qualifying. So, you can't look at this as anything other than you have to make sure you're 100% prepared for what you need to do.
"I think it would be foolish for us to approach any of these games in any other capacity."