Canada vs. New Zealand & USA vs. Sweden
By Gunnar Berndt
WATCH: Video preview
Group A: Canada (world no. 8) vs. New Zealand (world no. 12)
June 11 – Kickoff: 8 p.m. CT
Red Stars: Karina LeBlanc (GK), Adriana Leon (FWD), Melissa Tancredi (FWD) – all Canada; Abby Erceg (DEF) – New Zealand
Three Canadian Red Stars players will be facing off with New Zealand defender and fellow Chicago standout Abby Erceg in this meeting between two teams who find themselves in opposite situations following their respective group openers. While the host nation earned a dramatic 1-0 win over China and could seal its place in the knockout rounds with another three points, the Football Ferns were somewhat unlucky to fall 1-0 to World Cup debutant Netherlands and would face likely elimination in the event of their second straight loss.
After needing a stoppage-time penalty kick to gain the upper hand over a tenacious Chinese side, the Canucks will look to put on a more convincing performance against a New Zealand squad that was its usual, defensively-organized self against their Dutch opponents, thanks in part to strong leadership by captain Erceg. Even though Erceg will no doubt be instrumental in any success her team might have on Thursday, a lot also depends on the ability of attackers Sarah Gregorius, Amber Hearn and Hannah Wilkinson to step up their collective creativity.
On the Canadian side, it will be interesting to see whether rising star Adriana Leon made enough of a case for herself by earning the game-winning penalty kick against China to join fellow Chicago striker Melissa Tancredi in the starting lineup. Red Stars goalkeeper and Canucks legend Karina LeBlanc is expected to again serve as backup for the hosts.
Group D: USA (world no. 2) vs. Sweden (world no. 5)
June 12 – Kickoff: 7 p.m. CT
Red Stars: Julie Johnston (DEF), Lori Chalupny (MID-DEF), Shannon Boxx (MID), Christen Press (FWD) – all USA
While the U.S. Women earned a 3-1 victory in their group opener against feisty Australians, fellow giants Sweden had to settle for a 3-3 draw with Nigeria, which puts Head Coach Pia Sundhage’s side under a lot of pressure ahead of Friday’s Group D blockbuster clash. A win for the United States, coupled with a Nigerian victory over Australia earlier in the day, would have the Americans going through to the knockout stages and the Swedes sitting on a single point and facing possible elimination ahead of their final group game.
Reigning NWSL Rookie of the Year Julie Johnston and fellow Chicago ace Christen Press are expected to start once again for the Stars and Stripes, following strong performances in their World Cup debuts, which saw Johnston put in a solid 90-minute shift at center back and Press bag the game-winner after the break. Red Stars captain Lori Chalupny and legendary midfielder Shannon Boxx are likely to start on the bench for the United States, ready to step up if called upon.
The Americans have close ties with their Swedish counterparts. Opposition Head Coach Sundhage was in charge of the Red, White and Blue from 2008 to 2012 and led the team to two Olympic goal medals, one of those with the help of compatriot Tony Gustavsson, who returned as a U.S. Assistant Coach last year. While the USNWT’s Press, Hope Solo, Whitney Engen, Ali Krieger, Ashlyn Harris and Meghan Klingenberg have all played in Sweden’s top flight, Swedish forward Kosovare Asllani spent time with Chicago in 2010 and team captain Caroline Seger with Philadelphia Independence in 2010 and Western New York Flash in 2011.
A World Cup favorite that hasn’t won a major trophy in three decades, the Americans’ opponents will be desperate to get their campaign on track with a victory. If Sundhage’s squad is to accomplish such an impressive feat, it will need to shore up a backline that allowed itself to give up an early two-goal lead against Nigeria and then conceded a late equalizer after reclaiming the lead in the second half. Sweden will once again lean on the leadership of veterans Seger, Lotta Schelin and Nilla Fischer, who found the net in the group opener against the Super Falcons.