- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 6, 2011

WOLFSBURG, GERMANY (AP) - There’s no questioning Pia Sundhage’s loyalties, regardless of the passport she carries.

The United States plays Sweden in the first-round finale of the Women’s World Cup on Wednesday night, needing only a tie to win Group C and likely dodge a quarterfinal matchup with old nemesis Brazil. Never mind that Sundhage remains Sweden’s greatest player, that she led her native country to the title at the first European Women’s Championship in 1984 and the bronze medal in 1991 in the inaugural Women’s World Cup.

She has coached the U.S. since 2007, and when she says “we” these days she doesn’t mean Sweden.

“For me, it’s not Sweden. It’s just a team,” Sundhage said. “It’s a World Cup, and I hope we do very well in the World Cup so I can stay another year so I can win the Olympics again. That’s all that matters.”

Avoiding Brazil could play a big part in how well the Americans do at this World Cup. Led by Marta, the five-time FIFA player of the year, the Brazilians were runners-up to the U.S. at the last two Olympics and again to Germany at the 2007 World Cup. After winning their first two games, they need only a draw against World Cup newcomer Equatorial Guinea to win Group D.

The Group C runner-up, either Sweden or the U.S., has to play the Group D winner while whoever wins Group C gets the second-place team in Group D, likely Australia or Norway.

“Doesn’t matter. We’re prepared for whomever,” Abby Wambach insisted. “We can’t control any of that. Right now, we’re focused on Sweden. We want to get a good result against Sweden, we want to play well. That’s the thing. We want to keep playing well, performing to our potential because we’re going to continue to get better as the tournament goes on and hopefully we’ll be, come the championship game, playing our best.”

Whether Wambach is even playing against Sweden remains in question. The striker, who is third on the all-time U.S. scoring list, is bothered by chronic tendinitis in her right Achilles and did not practice either Monday or Tuesday. Heather O’Reilly, who scored the first goal against Colombia on Saturday, also sat out practice with a sore groin.

Sweden will be without captain Caroline Seger, who is suspended after picking up her second yellow card Saturday against North Korea. But Seger downplayed the impact of her absence.

“There is nothing new or anything that’s going to surprise the U.S.,” she said. “We know each other very well.”

The two teams do play quite regularly, with the U.S. holding an 18-4-7 advantage, including 3-0 at the World Cup.

But Sweden beat the Americans for the first time in almost seven years in January in the opener of the Four Nations tournament. The U.S. went on to win the tournament, but the defeat was one of three in a five-month span after the team had gone more than two years without losing a game.

“Of course when you beat another team, you always have good confidence,” Sweden coach Thomas Dennerby said. “But tomorrow, it’s a new game and it’s a game in a (major) tournament. That is not exactly the same as a game in a training tournament. I think the U.S. will be so much better tomorrow. So will the Swedish team.”

With both teams assured of spots in the quarterfinals, much of the pre-game attention has centered around Sundhage. She scored 71 goals in her 22-year international career, and remains the face of women’s soccer in Sweden. Though she knows the Americans better, obviously, she had a hand in shaping Sweden’s team, too, coaching some of the players on the country’s youth squads from 1990 to 2001.

Sundhage remains so celebrated in her home country that there were as many Swedish reporters at the U.S. practice Tuesday as there were at Sweden’s. Her name was even floated as a possible coach of the men’s team after it failed to qualify for the 2010 World Cup.

“Of course I know a lot about the way she wants football to be played,” Dennerby said. “But I don’t think that’s going to be a big deal in the game tomorrow. We are still good friends and talk a lot when we see each other. I hope it’s going to stay that way, after the game.”

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