TOKYO – Nothing like a good ol’ fashioned grudge match to kick off the Olympics.
The U.S. women begin play Wednesday with a game against Sweden. Yes, that would be the same Sweden that knocked the Americans out of the Rio Olympics in the quarterfinals, their earliest exit ever at a major tournament.
“What happened in 2016 was one of the worst results that the senior national team has had in a major tournament,” captain Becky Sauerbrunn said Tuesday. “From playing in that game, I know how disappointed we all were. It has lit a fire going into (the World Cup in) 2019, and also here for 2020.”
The rivalry between the USWNT and Sweden was already feisty before Rio. The U.S. has faced no team more often at the Olympics and World Cup than Sweden – the group-stage game in Tokyo will be their ninth at a major international tournament – including at each of the last five World Cups.
Seven of their last eight games overall have been decided by one goal or less, including a 1-1 draw in April that snapped the USWNT’s 16-game win streak, the third-longest in team history.
But it’s that 2016 loss, on penalty kicks, that still stings.
The U.S. women don’t lose often – all of six times since 2015 – and it’s really a rarity when big prizes are on the line. Since the World Cup began in 1991, the Americans have won it four times, including the last two. They have won the gold medal four times since women’s soccer was added to the Olympic program in 1996.
And when they don’t win, they usually come close.
They were runners-up at the 2011 World Cup, and finished third in 1995, 2003 and 2007. Before Rio, the Americans were silver medalists at the one Olympics where they didn’t win gold.
So to lose in 2016 was galling enough. To do it before even the medal rounds? It was almost incomprehensible.
“The players who were there in 2016, it’s in the back of our minds,” Alex Morgan said before the April friendly. “And those who weren’t there, we’ll be sure to remind them.”
Sweden has potent forwards, and it has the size and strength to go toe-to-toe with the Americans. But it’s the Swedes’ attitude that makes them such a formidable foe.
If they’re intimidated by the Americans and all their success, you’d never know it. They will do whatever it takes to win, even bunkering down as they did in Rio to take the game to extra time and then penalties.
“I think it’s more a question to the U.S. team, what do they think we do very good against them,” Sweden captain Caroline Seger said Tuesday, when asked to explain her team’s success against the USWNT.
That doesn’t mean Sweden takes the Americans lightly, either.
“We know we have to be very prepared. We have to step up to a level that is very high,” Seger said. “The U.S. brings its best when it needs to be the best. It’s going to be very tough game tomorrow, but I also know we’re very prepared.”
The Americans are hoping to become the first reigning World Cup champion to win the Olympic title, and a loss – or draw – against Sweden would not end those chances. But beating Sweden would put the USWNT in control of Group G and, theoretically, an easier path through the medal rounds.
Those are concerns for another day, however. For now, the Americans have one thought and one thought only in mind.
“It’s a loss that I’ve thought about a lot over the last five years, and how am I, how are we, going to get revenge?” Kelley O’Hara said. “Hopefully we’re going to beat them.”
Let the grudges, err, Games, begin.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.