Okay, so get this.
As the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup in France got underway last week, the defending champion U.S. Women’s National soccer squad ranked first in the FIFA world rankings. In fact, it’s done just that for 11 of the past 12 years, according to CBS News.
A meaningful trend? Is there a whiff of doubt?
And then this: Of the 23 players on the U.S. roster, 12 are holdovers from the team that prevailed in the World Cup four years ago. Of the 11 newcomers, seven have appeared at least 30 times for the national team, reported USA Today. What’s more, only 10 on the team haven’t competed in a Women’s World Cup match, while seven have played for the U.S.A. in the last three Women’s World Cups, stated CBS News.com. The site also reported that one of the three captains for the 2019 World Cup squad, veteran forward Carli Lloyd will compete in her fourth FIFA Women’s World Cup this year.
If that wasn’t enough (is it ever?), the U.S. has qualified for the Women’s World Cup every year since it started in 1991, prevailing thrice, CBS News.com reported. They’ve won 33, lost six and tied four in World Cup play. In the process, they’ve outscored their competition 112-35.
So, heck, it would hardly seem to warrant even a faint gasp that the U.S. is regarded by many as the team to beat in 2019.
Still, in the spirit of on any given day — and who hasn’t dabbled in that on a lazy weekend afternoon? — which team in the tournament has the best chance to upend the U.S., which walloped Thailand on Wednesday, 13-0? And get this: the 13 tallies are the most-ever scored in the history of the World Cup – men’s and women’s, reported WCNC. Alex Morgan found the net five times, which was record-tying, while Rose Lavelle and Sam Mewis each did so twice.
Still, Brendan Faherty, head women’s soccer coach at Yale University in New Haven Connecticut, believes France has at least a possibility of prevailing over the U.S. For one thing, he explained that the French have played some of the best soccer over the past 10 years and that “France has the athleticism to match the U.S. on the flanks, and the ability on the ball to keep it for long stretches. It will (force) the U.S. to defend for long stretches.”
That said, “France seems to struggle in the big tournaments,” he continued. “Only time will tell if the pressure of playing at home will help or hinder them, but it will be a shame if (the U.S. and France) win their groups and play in the quarterfinals since it truly should be a final.” The U.S., Faherty noted, has a “‘who’s who’ of options going forward and on the bench. They also have the belief that on any given day, they can beat anyone. It’s helped them to big wins in the past at the World Cup and the Olympics.”
Perhaps, but U.S. co-captain and midfielder/winger Megan Rapinoe also is high on France. While telling ESPN.com that she still believes in her group, Rapinoe noted, “I think (France), in my opinion, is the favorite, for sure. I don’t say that to play mind games. They’re a fantastic team.”
She also thinks they’ll benefit from the home team advantage. “They’re going to have, obviously, a home crowd with them every time,” reported Reuters. “We felt that in the last World Cup, even though it was in Canada, it felt like a home World Cup for us. In some of those tighter games, that was definitely a big boost for us. For me, I consider them the favorites and I feel like all the pressure is on them.”
Anson Dorrance, head coach the women’s soccer program at the University of North Carolina, also thinks France could give the U.S. a run for its money. “If you look at the French, their left wing is incredibly experienced and sophisticated in Eugénie Le Sommer. And left center back Wendie Renard “scored two brilliant head goals off corner kicks to basically win the game against South Korea. I think she’ll be formidable on set pieces, a part of the game that we usually dominate; but watching her play, maybe the French will dominate against us. I do think if the French play their best and we don’t play our best, we could certainly lose to them.”
According to USA Today, France is playing in its fourth Women’s World Cup, and regarded as one of the world’s strongest teams. While the paper reported that France is considered the favorite to capture the 2019 World Cup, it lacks experience in major cup finals. In the 2015 World Cup, France was eliminated in the quarterfinals and has been stymied in the quarterfinals in each of the last three European championships.
One key player for France is Amandine Henry, the French captain, one of several French stars who’s played club soccer for Lyon, the women’s powerhouse that has dominated Europe, with six Champions League trophies since 2011, USA Today reported. She helped lead the Portland Thorns to the 2017 NWSL championship, and re-joined Lyon in 2018, where she has won back-to-back Champions League winner’s medals.
Another is Kadidiatou Diani. She’s racked up six goals in seven 2019 friendlies. That includes a brace against the United States women’s national team.
So, sure, France has game.
Now, as for the U.S., ironically, perhaps, while Faherty said the U.S. has the most depth of any team in the World Cup, because of that depth, “I think they’re still struggling to find the right 11 players to put on the field at the same time.” The biggest question mark, he noted, will be who plays center midfield. “(Julie) Ertz is a definite starter, and then two from the following three will be chosen – (Lindsey) Horan, Mewis and Lavelle. I personally think Mewis gives them the two-way player they need when playing against better competition.”
A question for the U.S. also revolves around its back five, continued Faherty. “From a positional standpoint, (Becky) Suaerbrunn and (Kelley) O’Hara have proven their worth as defenders over the course of the last several years, but this is the first time in a World Cup for (Crystal) Dunn and (Abby) Dahlkemper.” And (Alyssa) Naeher will be in the spotlight in the absence of Hope Solo, he remarked.
Meantime, if history’s any indication, Ron Rainey, women’s soccer coach at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, believes the U.S. will be tough to overcome. “In 2015, I think the US team did an incredible job through the month-long event. Their recovery program allowed them to get stronger as the tournament progressed, and I felt they played their best soccer in the semis and final.” Other countries, he continued, may have noted this and ramped up their approach to the month-long event.”
Still, Rainey explained that “women’s soccer has progressed to where there are 8-10 teams who can win the title if all goes there way. “That’s different than five or 10 years ago, where that number may be cut in half.”
All this isn’t to suggest that Dorrance believes France is the only one with at least a reasonable chance to overtake the U.S. “Canada always gives us a fight, so they can never be dismissed; same goes for the Australians. And then I really feel like the Dutch are coming on and (would) be in a position to possibly beat us if they play their best and we don’t.”
Still, Rapinoe told Reuters: “I feel like all the pressure is on (France) and we’re just here to play and enjoy ourselves and try to do as well as we can.”
Furthermore, according to the Washington Post, Morgan said “many of the players were not a part of . There’s just a different feel, and it feels great. This team is ready to go. I feel like we are in peak form and ready to find success for the first time in this tournament as ’19ers.”