LE HAVRE, France — For all the firepower and weapons the United States has at its disposal and for all the goals the defending world champions have scored, there is one number that stood out after Thursday’s 2-0 win over Sweden:
Zero, as in no goals conceded through three Group F matches.
That’s impressive. Never had the Americans gone through their opening three games without giving up a goal, and that includes their previous three titles.
Their victory at Stade Oceane sent a message to the rest of the competition that not only are they efficient at filling the net — they scored a tournament-record 18 goals in the group stage — but they can do a pretty good job of keeping the opposition away from it as well.
“It’s huge,” forward Tobin Heath said.
Entering the tournament, the Americans’ back line and goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher were considered weak links. They have gained respect.
“We love hearing people doubt us,” left back and Rockville Centre native Crystal Dunn said. “It always goes back to us always wanting to be perfect and get better and grow. We had to go through those games where we weren’t perfect defensively. Everything we did before the World Cup prepared us to be at our best, and we’re still peaking and trying to get better every game.”
The solid performance put to rest any doubts that the USA would tank the game to finish second and avoid host France in a potential quarterfinal matchup.
“Do I think it’s silly? Of course,” Dunn said of that possibility. “We’re winners. We want to win. We don’t want to take the easy way out. For anyone to think we were going to throw this game and not play France in France in Paris is crazy.
“Of course, they have to go to that round and we have to go to that round. We had to gain momentum. Winning this game the way we did tonight is the only way we knew going into the knockout round best prepared.”
After playing two relatively easy matches in wins over Thailand (13-0) and Chile (3-0), the U.S. was challenged by a well-organized Swedish side that never gave up.
“This was an important game for us to figure out about ourselves, learn some things, play against a quality opponent,” said Heath, whose shot set up the USA’s second score, a 50th-minute own goal credited to Sweden defender Jonna Andersson. “We knew this was revving up until the knockout round. Now we’re really going to see what we’re made of.’’
The difficult part really begins now in the knockout round with the goal of reaching the final in Lyon on July 7. The USA will meet Spain in a round of 16 match in Reims on Monday.
Naeher, a question mark before the tournament because of her inexperience at the highest levels, was tested for the first time. A minute after the own goal, she denied Stina Blackstenius from close range.
“Alyssa has a lot of confidence in herself,” U.S. coach Jill Ellis said. “When you have an active forward line that is constantly looking in behind your backs . . . it forces you to have a heightened awareness of certain situations. She read a lot of those incredibly well. She was solid.”
So was Lindsey Horan, who went from an attacking midfield role to a defending one after Julie Ertz was ruled out of the match with a hip contusion as a precautionary measure. She scored the fastest goal in the tournament to date in the third minute as she slotted home Megan Rapinoe’s corner kick past goalkeeper Hedvig Lindahl.