The United States Women’s National Team put itself atop the worldwide soccer stage four years ago with a resounding victory in the 2015 Women’s World Cup in Canada. But in 2019, as the Americans look to be the second country ever to win back-to-back championships, it will be an entirely different situation this time around.
Only 10 of the 23 women on the roster are holdovers from 2015, making this iteration of the USWNT virtually a brand new team. The field of 24 nations vying for a World Cup trophy is considered much stronger than four years ago, even though it looks top-heavy on paper.
The U.S. is still favored to come out on top and win not only consecutive titles, but a fourth overall since the tournament started in 1991. But this one may be the most difficult yet, and the players and coaches know that going in.
“That’s what great about the women’s game is that the gap between the top and the bottom has just continued to close over the years,” Kelley O’Hara, who also plays for the Utah Royals FC, said at a recent press conference in London. “This is the tightest that it’s ever been. At any point, any team could win.”
The No. 1-ranked U.S. starts its title defense Tuesday against Thailand in Group F. The other two nations in that group are Sweden and Chile.
WORLD CUP OPENER
USA VS. THAILAND
When • Tuesday, 1 p.m.
TV • Ch. 13
Carli Lloyd, who is competing in her fourth World Cup, said that while there’s awareness about the expectation to win again, the team is trying to take it one game at a time.
“All of us are solely focused on the first game against Thailand,” Lloyd said. “In a major tournament like this, you can’t get too far ahead of yourself. We obviously want to get to the final, we want to win the final. But a lot can happen in between that.”
Challengers include England, host nation France, Germany and Japan. South Korea, Netherlands, Sweden and New Zealand will also be in the mix.
While it’s easy to think that the USWNT that won in 2015 is the same due to returning stars and coach Jill Ellis, that’s not the mindset the players have.
“We’re looking at it not as defending,” Becky Sauerbrunn, also with the Royals, said of potentially going back to back. “This team [has a] new identity. It’s revamped, it’s got a very young, energetic majority to it. You have some kind of old guns that have been around for a while, but we see it more as it’s a new team. We’re going to try to create our own legacy.”
Another change to the 2019 version of the U.S. team is its tactics. Ellis said it will play a 4-3-3 formation this year. In 2015, the team played a 4-4-2. The coach said she mapped out every player’s best position on a diagram and realized the 4-3-3 formation made the most sense for the roster she chose.
“It’s a shape that suits us,” Ellis said. “We are highly productive in our goal scoring. You’re playing with three forwards, but you have backs that attack. It’s just a really good fit for us.”
In its last major soccer tournament, the 2016 Olympics, the USWNT finished in fifth place — the lowest result in the team’s history. O’Hara said the taste of losing that year will hopefully give the U.S. extra motivation to not let that happen again.
Ellis said each player on her roster is special, and considers herself to have “23 X-factors.” And although the narrative going into the tournament will be whether the Americans can be special for a second consecutive time, the USWNT looks at it differently.
“The term ‘defending champions,’ we won that. We can check that off our box,” Lloyd said. “Now [in] 2019, we’re actually going to try to win it again. That’s the plan.”