LE HAVRE, France — United States coach Jill Ellis and her players have heard variations of the same question again and again the past few weeks. Asked with varying degrees of diplomatic wording, the queries all revolved around a central tenet: Wouldn’t it be better in the long run if the U.S. loses Thursday’s Group F finale against Sweden and avoids any possibility of an early knockout encounter with France?
Ellis offered what has become a consistent refrain.
“I struggle to tell my team not to tackle each other in training the day before [games],” Ellis said. “I think at this point it’s making sure your focus is in yourself.”
Winger Crystal Dunn was even more direct.
“We want to freaking play France,” Dunn said Tuesday. “Fingers crossed, obviously. But at the end of the day, it’s mind-boggling that people would think we actually would want to lose a game going into the knockout rounds. We want to continue those winning vibes.”
Projecting possible paths through the knockout rounds is a time-honored tradition during any World Cup, but it’s especially tempting now for U.S. fans because it isn’t clear that winning Group F comes with much of a reward.
We know the U.S. is through to round of 16, and we know it will advance as either the first- or second-place team in Group F. So what do those two diverging paths look like?
First scenario: United States wins Group F
How this happens: The U.S. needs a win or a draw against Sweden. All those goals in the Americans’ 13-0 opening game against Thailand make the goal-differential tiebreaker almost a moot point, so even if the teams draw and each finish with seven points, first place goes to the U.S.
What happens next: We know the U.S. would play Spain in the first round of the tournament’s knockout phase in this scenario. That game would take place in Reims, where the U.S. played its first game and enjoyed considerable fan support (the city is less than an hour by train from Paris, making it easily accessible for Americans abroad).
The Spaniards have so far shown they are still a consistent finisher — they secured a second-place finish behind Germany only on goal differential after a 0-0 draw with China. But Spain tested the U.S. before losing at home in a pre-World Cup match in January. This would be a more difficult game for the U.S. compared to its 2015 round of 16 matchup against Colombia.
Wins by the USWNT and Group A winners France would lead to a quarterfinal clash in Paris, leading some to wonder if the U.S. would want to choose what’s behind the next door. But that is now a legitimate “if,” because the French will almost surely have a more difficult game in the round of 16 than anyone envisioned, courtesy of Brazil finishing third in Group C. While not yet certain, those teams will probably meet.
Beyond that, there are almost too many possible permutations to ponder. But the big takeaways are Australia and England would be potential semifinal opponents for the U.S., if the English win or draw their final group game against Japan.
Second scenario: United States finishes second in Group F
Crystal Dunn insisted the USWNT wants to beat Sweden and finish top, and carry its momentum when the Americans face the best teams in the world.
How this happens: The U.S. loses to Sweden. The Americans are the favorite, but the upset has happened before in a major tournament. Japan beat the U.S. in the 2011 World Cup, and Sweden eliminated the U.S. in the quarterfinals of the 2016 Rio Olympics via a shootout. Overall, the U.S. is a modest 5-3-6 against Sweden over the past decade.
What happens next: Instead of playing the tournament’s marquee quarterfinal under the first scenario, the U.S. would get a place in the marquee round of 16 game against the runner-up from Group E — either Canada or the Netherlands, the teams currently tied atop the group. The Dutch hold the advantage because of goals scored (the sides are tied on goal differential), so all they need is a draw when the teams play Thursday.
That game would be in Paris, continuing the Americans’ minimal travel burden this tournament.
The primary allure of this scenario is a more manageable quarterfinal. But more manageable doesn’t mean easy. The likely matchup for that June 29 game in Rennes would be against Germany, which won Group B and will be a heavy favorite against one of three third-place teams in the round of 16, probably Argentina, Nigeria or Scotland. Compare that to four years ago, when the U.S. played China in the quarterfinals, and it’s clear this route is hardly a dream draw, either.
The most likely semifinal opponent here would be whichever team the U.S. didn’t face in the round of 16 (Canada or the Netherlands). It’s also possible England could drop into this half of the bracket if it loses its group finale against Japan.
And, under this scenario, the U.S. wouldn’t face host France until the final.
As of Wednesday, June 19, FiveThirtyEight.com projects the USWNT still holds an overall 23% chance of winning the Women’s World Cup, currently holding a 3% edge over host France as the overall favorite.