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U.S. women, Sweden play to a scoreless tie

WINNIPEG, Manitoba - Jill Ellis was an assistant coach when Pia Sundhage was in charge of the United States women's soccer team, so she knows a thing or two about the mind games Sundhage can play at a World Cup.

WINNIPEG, Manitoba - Jill Ellis was an assistant coach when Pia Sundhage was in charge of the United States women's soccer team, so she knows a thing or two about the mind games Sundhage can play at a World Cup.

On Friday night, Ellis made a statement of her own, using Abby Wambach as a substitute instead of as a starter. But the late-game surge from Wambach and fellow substitutes Alex Morgan and Amy Rodriguez wasn't enough to crack a tense, physical game that ended in a 0-0 tie.

"Both teams left it all on the field," Ellis said. "Sweden had a good game plan; they were tough to break down."

The result still left the Americans atop top group D with four points - three from Monday's win and one from Friday's tie. Australia has three after beating Nigeria, 2-0; Sweden has two after Friday's tie and Monday's 3-3 draw with Nigeria; and Nigeria has one point.

Even before Sundhage stole the headlines in recent days, the game had been billed as a heavyweight battle. The United States and Sweden sit at No. 2 and No. 4 in the FIFA rankings, and many observers were surprised to see the Swedes get a second-tier seed in the group stage draw.

Sweden didn't hesitate to play a physical game, committing 11 fouls on the night - including eight fouls in the first half. At the other end of the field, former Philadelphia Independence star Caroline Seger helped the Swedes win eight corner kicks. But the U.S. defense repelled each of them.

A key reason for the Americans' strong defensive effort - on set pieces and across the field - was 23-year-old centerback Julie Johnston. She played with just the right mix of relentlessness and composure, drawing raves from Ellis.

"Her timing is excellent on going to the ground and winning balls, and her timing in the air is very, very good," Ellis said. "For a young player, she has showed a lot of maturity already."

Ellis made her three substitutions in the later stages of the second half. The game plan was clear: Hit Sweden with the mix of power and will that Sundhage spent so much of the build up to kickoff raving about.

It was, Sundhage said Thursday, a kind of fortitude that she wanted to see from her current players. And while her prediction that Wambach would start proved wrong, Sundhage's wish to see her new team rise up to the moment came true.

In the 77th minute, Seger nearly gave Sweden its reward. She hit a swerving shot off a corner kick service that was ticketed for the back of the net until Meghan Klingenberg - all 5-foot-2 of her - leapt and headed the ball up off the crossbar and out of the goal mouth.

Klingenberg said it was something the team has practiced before, including over the last few days. And she noted the play's similarity to one of the most famous moments in American soccer history - Kristine Lilly's goal line clearance in the 1999 Women's World Cup title game against China.

"You have to know that those are the plays that make an absolute difference," Klingenberg said. "I think it's really key to practice every single nuance that could possibly happen.

Sundhage, meanwhile, was left stunned.

"I was absolutely sure that was the winning goal, and I couldn't believe the fact that it bounced out," she said.

With just seconds left to play, Sweden goalkeeper Hedvik Lindahl made a spectacular save in a traffic jam after an American corner kick. As she rose from the Winnipeg Stadium turf, the pro-American crowd of 32,716 resigned itself to the result.

There are still reasons for optimism, though. The Americans' next opponent, Nigeria, will bring by far the weakest defense they have yet faced, so a first- place sealing win should be expected.

"We're still in the driver's seat," Ellis said. "We still have an opportunity to finish top if we get things done against Nigeria, and our focus now will be moving on quickly."

Moving on quickly will certainly be necessary, with kickoff at Vancouver's BC Place coming up on Tuesday. But before that move began, it was hard to avoid a conclusion that Monday's result felt more like two points dropped than one point gain.