When the United States Women’s National Team takes the pitch, they’ll be tasked with navigating the largest and deepest World Cup field ever. Though the Olympic gold medal more or less belongs to the USWNT—remember this?—they have tended to come up short on the sport’s biggest stage. They’ve advanced to at least the semifinals in each and every World Cup to date, but they have only won twice, and they haven’t won since 1999. They galloped all the way to the final in 2011, only to lose in spectacular fashion to Japan. Remember this?
The USWNT are in the Group of Death. They’re deep, though banged up. There are some roster questions. They drew South Korea in a friendly last weekend (what the fuck was that?). Last winter, they lost two matches over two months to Brazil and France, who are two of the only other teams in the world who really have a prayer of beating them. In December, their ranking dropped to second in the world—their lowest ever.
But let’s not overcomplicate this. They’re shoo-ins to reach the knockout stages.
The United States of America is the mecca of women’s soccer. The goddamned mecca. Though they don’t have anyone who can claim to be the single best player in the world, they have a bunch of women who can claim to be the very best at their positions, and even more who could walk into each and every starting 11 in the world and be a star or the star. Some of those will leave Canada this summer without ever taking off their sweats. This is a tragedy. This is life in the mecca.
Hey, real quick—look at this play:
That happened like two and half weeks ago.
Again, let’s not overcomplicate this. The United States should win the 2015 Women’s World Cup. The United States are favored to win the 2015 Women’s World Cup. The United States will probably win the 2015 Women’s World Cup.
Goalkeepers: Ashlyn Harris (Washington Spirit), Alyssa Naeher (Boston Breakers), Hope Solo (Seattle Reign FC)
Defenders: Lori Chalupny (Chicago Red Stars), Whitney Engen (Western NY Flash), Julie Johnston (Chicago Red Stars), Meghan Klingenberg (Houston Dash), Ali Krieger (Washington Spirit), Kelley O’Hara (Sky Blue FC), Christie Rampone (Sky Blue FC), Becky Sauerbrunn (FC Kansas City)
Midfielders: Shannon Boxx (Chicago Red Stars), Morgan Brian (Houston Dash), Tobin Heath (Portland Thorns FC), Lauren Holiday (FC Kansas City), Carli Lloyd (Houston Dash), Heather O’Reilly (FC Kansas City), Megan Rapinoe (Seattle Reign FC)
Forwards: Sydney Leroux (Western NY Flash), Alex Morgan (Portland Thorns FC), Christen Press (Chicago Red Stars), Amy Rodriguez (FC Kansas City), Abby Wambach (Unattached)
FIFA World Ranking
How They Play
Much as been made of the USWNT’s depth, but what separates the USWNT from the teams they’ll play in Group D and beyond is also their breadth. They’re simply more talented and more complete all over the field than those other teams. There’s, for example, but one keeper like Hope Solo, who is every bit as impossible a player on the field as she is a disaster off of it. Most teams can’t boast a centerback like Julie Johnston, who’s a rock in the back and a scoring threat on set pieces, or even one like Johnston’s partner, Becky Sauerbrunn. Players like Meghan Klingenberg, Ali Krieger, and Kelley O’Hara are all unimpeachable at outside back. Few players are capable of crossing a ball in the box as precisely right wing Megan Rapinoe, or of taking on defenders as jubilantly as Tobin Heath on the left. Carli Lloyd, Lauren Holiday, and Morgan Brian are three box-to-box center midfielders who dictate the USWNT’s tempo, spraying the ball around the park; Lloyd and Holiday also are capable of scoring themselves. But the strength of the team, without a doubt, is in their attacking options.
At 35 years old, Abby Wambach is in the twilight of what is by far the most successful striking career in the history of American soccer. In 242 appearances, she’s scored 182. (The next closest player is Mia Hamm, with 158; the closest man is Landon Donovan, with 57.) At 5-foot-11, with broad shoulders to hold up play and hold off defenders while skying for headers, she is virtually unique in the sport. She might not start.
That’s because superstar forwards Alex Morgan, Sydney Leroux, Amy Rodriguez, and Christen Press are also making the trip to Canada. Morgan, when fit and in form, is this team’s engine and their biggest threat. At 25, she’s faster than everyone, stronger than most, ruthless in front of goal, and absolutely tenacious without the ball. Leroux, too, is quick and has an uncanny inability to not score. Rodriguez has a knack of getting on the end of everything. Everything. Christen Press is one of the team’s best players, and maybe the least-known of this five-headed monster.
Press finished a record-breaking college career at Stanford in 2010, where she won the award for the best player in the nation. After two years playing in the United States, she moved to Sweden for two years, where she won the Golden Boot. Now she’s back and, like the rest of the USWNT, playing in America’s NWSL. Press is poised to have a monstrous World Cup.
The USWNT can and will score on teams however, from wherever, and seemingly whenever they want to. The question, then, is how to get all this talent on the field. What do you do when you’re too deep, when some of the best players on your team are riding pine?
Wambach probably can’t play 90 minutes every match anymore, but she needs to play. If she partners with Morgan, she’ll be able to feast on Rapinoe’s crosses. But what of Leroux, Rodriguez, and Press? It would fun to line up three of the five up top, but in a three-man, narrow midfield, there won’t be any way for Rapinoe or Heath to flourish on the flanks.
But there’s another problem. If the USWNT have a glaring weakness, it’s that they don’t have a great holding midfielder to shield the back four and hold up play. Manager Jillian Ellis seems to have settled on a diamond 4-4-2, but in an effort to get her best 11 women on the field at the same time, she often uses Holiday as an anchor. Holiday is one of the greatest players in the game, but she’s at her best when she’s higher up the pitch. She creates and scores goals, and could be caught out in her new role.
Beyond that, Press can play on the left, right, or even just behind the strikers. Press—like Leroux, Wambach, Morgan, and Holiday—is one of the best 11 players on the team. But no one knows what the team’s best 11 is.
If the USWNT can get and stay fit as the tournament crawls along, the most interesting thing to keep an eye on will be Ellis’s squad selections to meet different challenges. Even with 23 other teams vying for the World Cup, the biggest threat to the USWNT might just be the USWNT.
June 8, 7:30 p.m.: United States vs. Australia at Winnipeg Stadium
June 12, 8 p.m.: United States vs. Sweden at Winnipeg Stadium
June 16, 8 p.m.: Nigeria vs. United States at BC Stadium
All times Eastern