When their World Cup campaign kicks off Tuesday in Reims, France, the United States Women’s National Team will aim to do something it has never done: go back-to-back.
The United States has lifted the trophy more than any other country (1991, 1999 and 2015), but Germany is the only nation in the history of the competition to win back-to-back titles (2003, 2007). In their last two title defenses, the Americans finished third.
This time around, the USWNT certainly has the talent to repeat, with a host of returning faces and newcomers filling vital roles. They enter the tournament as favorites and will have no problem advancing to the group stage, but the team has some question marks that could be exploited as the herd thins in the Round of 16 and beyond.
Can they win it all? Here is the answer to that question, and three others, before the tournament begins.
Of the 14 women who took the field as a starter or a substitute for the United States in the 2015 World Cup Final win over Japan in Vancouver, nine will be with the side in France. Manager Jill Ellis called up 61 different players over the last two-and-a-half years, per the Guardian, but the core of the team will be familiar to casual and hardcore fans alike.
Tobin Heath, Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe give Ellis a formidable front three in the USWNT’s 4-3-3 formation. Morgan leads the line, but Heath’s dazzling dribbles and Rapinoe’s cracking crossing ability might pose even more problems for opponents. Julie Ertz no longer forms a steady center-back pairing with Becky Sauerbrunn, but plays in front of the backline as a do-it-all defensive midfielder. Sauerbrunn, meanwhile, will be relied upon to steady the United States at the back.
Kelley O’Hara slots in as the starting right back, and her attacking instincts will be relied upon in build-up play. 2015 Golden Ball winner -- and hat-trick hero -- Carli Lloyd fills the super-sub role. Morgan Brian and Ali Krieger also return, bringing experience in midfield and at fullback, respectively. Christen Press, who did not play in the 2015 Final, adds to the Americans’ embarrassment of riches in attack in a role off the bench.
Hope Solo’s team this is not. Alyssa Naeher took the reigns as the USWNT’s starting keeper in the aftermath of Solo’s suspension and eventual contract termination with U.S. soccer, and plays a bit differently than her predecessor. FiveThirtyEight found that Naeher plays more passes out of the back than Solo, but stops fewer shots.
Sacred Heart Preparatory (Atherton) alum Abby Dahlkemper will play alongside Sauerbrunn at center back, and make her World Cup debut. Crystal Dunn is another World Cup debutante along the back-line, but the left back will play a very progressive role as USWNT pushes players forward. Lindsey Horan and Rose Lavelle join Ertz in midfield, and the two arguably lead the charge among the team’s “next generation.”
The two youngest players on the team could also be its breakout stars. 20-year-old Tierna Davidson, like Dahlkemper, is a Sacred Heart alumna, but the Chicago Red Stars defender left Stanford after a season to become the No. 1 pick in the 2019 NWSL Draft. 21-year-old Mallory Pugh didn’t play a game in college (UCLA) before turning pro, and made her senior national team debut as a 17-year-old. The pair might end up making its biggest impact in 2023, but don’t be surprised if either phenom plays a pivotal role in France when all is said and done.
Who’s in their group?
After advancing from the Group Of Death in 2015, the draw was much kinder to the Americans this time around. The USWNT opens play in Group F against Thailand on June 11, and then plays Chile in Paris on June 16. The Chileans are making their World Cup debut, but both countries fall in the bottom three of ESPN’s Soccer Power Index.
Sweden rounds out Group F, and will give the USWNT a strong challenge in the group-stage finale on June 20 in Le Havre. It’s a possible revenge game, as the Swedes eliminated the Americans in a penalty shootout in the quarterfinals of the Rio Olympics. Advancing to the knockout stage likely won’t come down to the grudge match, but Sweden will give the USWNT its first real test of the tournament.
Can they win it all?
The USWNT is just as, if not more talented than any of the 23 countries competing in France this summer. Press, Pugh and potentially even now-36-year-old Lloyd could start for other teams at this World Cup, giving the Americans the deepest complement of attackers in the tournament.
That’s a boon for Ellis’ ultra-attacking style, but the same strategy can leave her squad exposed in defense. Both Dunn and O’Hara have played -- or, in the case of Dunn, currently play -- higher up the pitch. That didn’t bite the Americans in their run of pre-tournament friendlies against weaker sides, but the USWNT only kept one clean sheet in five matches against teams FIFA currently ranks in the top 10 in the world. Considering the Americans only conceded three goals in the entirety of the last World Cup, that’s a concern.
The expectations are as high as ever, and anything shy of reaching the Final likely will be seen as a disappointment. But the USWNT is tested, and should be hungry after bowing out of the 2016 Olympics sooner than expected. The Americans are favorites for a reason, and the road to a World Cup crown runs through them.