The knockout rounds are here! Having advanced out of Group E at the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup, the U.S. Women’s National Team will travel from New Zealand to Australia for its upcoming Round of 16 matchup against longtime rivals Sweden. The teams will square off on August 6 (7 p.m. AET/5 a.m. ET on FOX, Telemundo, Universo and Peacock) at Melbourne Rectangular Stadium in Melbourne/Naarm in what will be the seventh meeting all-time between the teams at the Women’s World Cup but the first ever in the knockout rounds.
Get ready for the Round of 16 with Five Things to Know about Sweden
SWEDES TOP GROUP G
Sweden advanced to the knockout rounds as the winners of Group G, its fourth consecutive Women’s World Cup advancing out of the group and eighth overall in nine World Cup appearances. Like the USA, Sweden played the entirety of the group stage in New Zealand, playing two matches in Wellington/Te Whanganui-a-tara and one in Hamilton/Kirikiriroa.
Sweden opened the group stage in somewhat nail-biting fashion, falling behind to South Africa 1-0 after a goal from Banyana Banyana in the 48th minute. Forward Fridolina Roflo equalized for Sweden in the 68th minute and defender Amanda Ilestedt headed in the game-winner in the 90th minute off a corner kick, making Sweden the first team to win a game this World Cup after conceding first.
Ilestedt continued her goal-scoring form in Sweden’s second group stage match, scoring twice – both goals once again coming off corners - in Sweden’s 5-0 win over Italy on July 29. Rolfo, Stina Blackstenius and Rebecka Blomqvist also scored as Sweden took a 3-0 halftime lead over the Italians and held a 7-3 advantage overall in shots on target.
With six points from its first two matches, Sweden head coach Peter Gerhardsson made nine changes to its starting lineup in the final group stage match against Argentina, winning 2-0 behind a 66th-minute goal from Blomqvist and a penalty kick in the 90th from Elin Rubensson.
ROAD TO DOWN UNDER
Sweden qualified for the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup, its ninth all-time, after a commanding performance in UEFA Qualifying Group A that saw them go unbeaten in the group with an overall record of 7W-1D-0L. The Swedes outscored the opposition 32-2 in qualifying, conceding one goal to Finland in a 2-1 victory in November of 2021 and in a 1-1 draw against the Republic of Ireland in April of 2022, the only points dropped during the qualifying campaign.
Along with Spain and France, Sweden was one of the first teams from Europe to clinch its spot, securing its World Cup berth on April 12, 2022. Forwards Lina Hurtig and Rolfo led Sweden in scoring in qualifying with five goals apiece.
Sweden, along with the USA, is one of seven nations to qualify for every edition of the FIFA Women’s World Cup. Brazil, Germany, Japan, Nigeria and Norway are the others to have appeared in all nine Women’s World Cups.
WE MEET AGAIN: USA vs. SWEDEN
The most-played matchup in FIFA Women’s World Cup history, the USA and Sweden are set to meet for the seventh time at the World Cup, though this will be their first meeting ever in the World Cup knockout rounds. The USA and Sweden first squared off in the first group match of the 1991 Women’s World Cup and have played in every World Cup since 2003, with all those encounters taking place in the group stage. The U.S. has a record of 4W-1D-1L against Sweden at the World Cup, the lone loss coming in a 2-1 defeat to the Swedes in 2011 followed by a scoreless draw in 2015.
In the most recent World Cup matchup between the teams in 2019, the USA defeated Sweden 2-0 in the final group stage match behind a third-minute goal from Lindsey Horan and an own goal from Sweden in the 50th.
Sunday’s match in Melbourne will be the 10th meeting all-time between the USA and Sweden at a world championship, with the teams playing twice at the Olympics in addition to the six previous meetings at the World Cup. The USA and Sweden played most recently in the group stage opener of the delayed 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, a 3-0 victory for the Swedes who went on to claim the silver medal, falling to Canada on penalty kicks in the final. The only other knockout round meeting between the teams came in the quarterfinals of the 2016 Summer Olympics when Sweden advanced on penalty kicks after a 1-1 draw at the end of regulation and extra time.
The Round of 16 matchup will be the 43rd meeting overall between the USA and Sweden, making Sweden the fourth-most commonly played opponent in USWNT history behind Canada, China PR and Norway. The USA leads the all-time series, which dates back to 1987, with an overall record of 23W-12D-7L, though in the last 10 matches the USA is 4W-4D-2L, with nine of the last 10 meetings between the teams decided by two goals or fewer.
INSIDE THE ROSTER
Now in his seventh year as head coach for Sweden, Gerhardsson’s roster for the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup features 17 players who were a part of Sweden’s silver-medal winning side in 2021. A name long-synonymous with women’s soccer in Sweden, midfielder Caroline Seger is back for her fifth Women’s World Cup, albeit in a more reserved role as the 38-year-old battled back from injury to make the World Cup roster.
Midfielder Kosovare Asllani, who has 172 caps for her country and captained the squad in Sweden’s first two group games before getting a well-earned rest against Argentina, is the overall leading scorer on this roster with 44 career international goals. Center back Ilestedt leads Sweden in scoring with three goals at this World Cup, all of which have come off corner kicks. Roflo and Blomqvist have two goals each while Blackstenius and Rubensson have a goal apiece. Sofia Jackobsson, who plays for San Diego Wave FC in the NWSL alongside the USA’s Alex Morgan and Naomi Girma, has two assists this tournament, tied with defender Jonna Andersson for the team lead.
SWEDEN WOMEN’S WORLD CUP ROSTER BY POSITION
Goalkeepers (3): 1-Zecira Musovic (Chelsea FC, ENG), 12-Jennifer Falk (BK Häcken), 21-Tove Enblom (KIF Örebro DFF)
Defenders (7): 2-Jonna Andersson (Hammarby DFF), 3-Linda Sembrant (Juventus FC, ITA ), 4-Stina Lennartsson (Linköpings FC), 5-Anna Sandberg (BK Häcken), 13-Amanda Ilestedt (Arsenal, ENG), 14-Nathalie Bjorn (Everton, ENG)
Midfielders (8): 9-Kosovare Asllani (AC Milan, ITA), 16-Filippa Angeldal (Manchester City, ENG), 17-Caroline Seger (FC Rosengård), 18-Fridolina Rolfo (FC Barcelona, ESP), 19-Johanna Kaneryd (Chelsea FC, ENG), 20-Hanna Bennison (Everton, ENG), 22-Olivia Schough (FC Rosengård), 23-Elin Rubensson (BK Häcken)
Forwards (5): 7-Madelen Janogy (Hammarby DFF), 8--Lina Hurtig (Arsenal, ENG), 10-Sofia Jackobsson (San Diego Wave FC, USA), 11-Stina Blackstenius (Arsenal, ENG), 15-Rebecka Blomqvist (VfL Wolfsburg, GER)
After finishing second at the delayed 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, third at the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup in France and taking silver at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, Sweden holds the distinction of being the only nation to finish in the top three in each of the last three world championship events.
While a perennial contender, Sweden has not finished first in a major tournament since winning the 1984 UEFA Women’s Championship. Since then, the Swedes have posted three runner-up and four fourth-place finishes at the EUROS, two silver medals at the Olympics and one runner-up and three third-place finishes at the FIFA Women’s World Cup.
Sweden’s best-ever showing at the World Cup came in 2003, when Sweden reached the final before falling to Germany 2-1 in extra-time in the championship match.
Sweden finished third at the inaugural Women’s World Cup in 1991, topping Germany 4-0 in the third-place match after dropping its group-stage opener to the USA. After falling to Japan 3-1 in the 2011 semifinal, Sweden topped France 2-1 in the third-place match and then beat England 2-1 in 2019 to claim third-place honors.
Molina, known to all as Kike (pronounced Kee-Kay) was raised in the Caldas region of Colombia. In those early days, in the city of Manizales, he was desperate to forge a career in the sport he loved. “But if you’re not signed by a club [in Colombia] by the time you’re sixteen, it’s pretty much finished for you.”
Stubborn by nature, Molina wasn’t ready to be finished. He traveled to the United States, where he expected to be “signed by a pro club the moment I arrived.” When no club reps met him at the airport waving contracts, he joined up with relatives and attended high school in Greenville, South Carolina.
He excelled on the field and caught the eye of college scouts. Molina eventually attended Division-Two North Greenville University on a full-ride soccer scholarship.
“The people were so amazing there,” he said of his four years at the school. He perfected his English and came to appreciate how Americans, “really want to help if you come at them in a genuine way.”
Still he wasn’t satisfied with focusing on his studies – unsurprisingly with a major in Sports Management and Business. His childhood dream itched him like a rash. “The soccer side of college infuriated me,” he said of the school where the game seemed merely a pastime for most of his teammates. “I wanted to be an athlete first,” he said. “My ambitions were different from my teammates. It was always a part of me.”
Molina interned in the front office of USL League One side Greenville Triumph and played summer-league soccer in Florida with Knoxville Force and Wake FC. But after graduation, the end stared him in the face again – same as it had in Colombia when he was 16. Undaunted, he carried on and ended up, coincidentally, in another Colombia (well Columbia, South Carolina).
Fellow Dreamers and SCU Heat
His current club, SCU Heat, undefeated in the United Premier Soccer League this year, is a place where the flame of dreams can be sustained for a little while longer. The embers are tended there.
Players, ranging in age from 17 to 28, receive room and board. They live together in three houses owned by the club. They’re expected to work days and play – keeping a high on-field standard – by night.
The club’s a stepping stone up to the pros, or a last chance before life’s demands swallow the dream.
“It’s up to me as captain to hold the younger guys accountable,” added Molina, who’s been a crucial part of a midfield that’s helped SCU Heat dominate the UPSL’s Mid-Atlantic Conference this year and climb through three rounds of 2023 Open Cup Qualifying.
And now, with a home test against high-flying Club de Lyon of Florida on December 17, they’re on the cusp of a place in the Open Cup Proper. And that’s a chance to play against the very pro sides that Molina and his teammates are hoping to reach.
The Dream Remains the Same
“They way I dreamed of playing in big stadiums back home in Colombia, this [SCU Heat] is a version of that for the kids who grow up here,” he said of the club, an incubator of overlooked talent.“We have players from 13 different countries and it’s a real mix of cultures,” added Molina, whose smarts off the field match his ability on it. Aside from his captain duties, he’s also learning his way as the club’s GM and de-facto marketing manager.
It’s a sign of his maturity that he doesn’t think first of what the Open Cup means for himself. But rather, for his coach, Asher Quave Robinson, and club founder and co-owner Nick Lewis.
“I have to take myself out of it,” Molina said of his bosses, who climb uphill everyday to provide a path, unlikely as it might be, for these players to reach a little farther. “They try so hard to make this club as professional as possible. They give the kids in this city something to believe in.
Captain Molina Showing the Way
“He [Molina] is a leader and a great personality,” said coach Robinson, in his second year at the club. “He does the work of two men – the communicating and running and the gritty work too. Whenever anyone is tired, he raises the level.
“He [Molina] sets the standard of what we want our club to be about,” the coach added.
Molina still sends money home to his family in Colombia. He went five years without seeing his father and three years without seeing his mother while he was in high school and college in the States. It’s not been an easy road for Molina, who, even so, oozes positivity and calm.
Graduates of SCU Heat have moved on to Rochester NY FC (formerly the Open Cup-winning Rochester Rhinos, who play in MLS Next). Others have gone abroad to play in the Faroe Islands and Denmark and in the USL Championship with Charleston Battery.
“Some of our players have been successful,” insists Molina.
‘Nothing But Opportunity Here’
“The end might come,” said the midfielder, always prepared and looking for opportunities on the field or off. “If you take soccer out of the picture I could probably send more money home to my family…”
There’s a but in there. It’s not spoken. It’s implied. He’s not a pro – not yet. But every day he’s working toward that dream, a star on the horizon. It’s a steadying and consistent signpost from his boyhood.
“We all have the same intentions,” said Molina. “We want to grow. There’s no money involved for us. We have nothing else but opportunity here, and that takes the greedy side out of it. It’s a pure intention.
“We want to win and we want to be the best,” said young Molina, who’s put his finger on the essence, even the beauty, of the in-between he’s found himself in. “The winning is the pay.”
Fontela is editor-in-chief of usopencup.com. Follow him at @jonahfontela on Twitter.