The United States enter the World Cup as the best in the world, the team with the most top-to-bottom talent, and the reigning champions. They also enter the tournament facing the toughest field in the competition’s history, and though they have improved over the last four years in key places, they are only slight favorites to lift the trophy, if even that (FiveThirtyEight has the hosts, France, as the early favorite).
The last four years have mostly not been kind to the United States. The year after their triumphant 2015, the USWNT went to the Olympics and suffered humiliating defeat in the quarterfinals, making it the U.S.’s worst ever major tournament performance. The team also has had to transition from legendary players in key positions. Abby Wambach retired, Carli Lloyd is now an unhappy substitute, and the team split with Hope Solo after she called Sweden “a bunch of cowards” after losing to them in the Olympics. In 2017 the team dropped from the number one spot in the FIFA world rankings, and there were questions about the system and the roster heading into the final year of World Cup prep.
But the USWNT got their shit together, going unbeaten in 28 games in a row at one point and, despite finishing second in the SheBelieves Cup earlier this year, they are probably entering the tournament in the best shape possible. It all starts with the front three for the United States. If the American forward line is not the best in the world, it’s surely a very close second to the Netherlands. Megan Rapinoe is still playing at a high level on the left wing, and more than anyone on the team, she’s capable of manufacturing goals out of nothing, whether with her lethal crosses or her ability to score bangers. In the middle, Alex Morgan is finally entering a World Cup in full health and good form. No longer just the speed merchant who made a living running behind defenses, now Morgan plays a more tactical striker role, holding up the ball for Rapinoe and Tobin Heath.
Speaking of Heath, she’s evolved from a walking nutmeg highlight reel into the most important attacker on the team, and possibly its best player as well. Earlier in her career, the knock on Heath was that her final product was lacking. That has changed. Heath had eight goals and seven assists in the NWSL last season, and has scored five goals for the national team in 2019. I’d go as far as to say Heath would be the best positioned American to end the tournament with the Golden Ball, were it not for the existence of Lindsey Horan in the midfield.
Playing in her first World Cup this month, the 25-year-old Horan is the reason the U.S. are more dangerous than anyone else in the field. A former striker who was the first American to skip college to play for a European Club (Paris Saint-Germain in her case), Horan now dominates the center of the park as a classic box-to-box wrecking ball. She’s just as likely to ruin multiple midfielders with her strength and crunching tackles—she won the ball 118 (one-hundred and eighteen!) more times than any other player in the NWSL last season—as she is to barrel forward and pop in shots: she had 14 goals in the NWSL last season, earning MVP honors in the process.
It doesn’t hurt that she’s got former USWNT center back Julie Ertz in midfield next to her. The pair are ruthless in getting the ball back and pushing it forward to their talented attackers, and Ertz in particular will be a whirlwind in front of the backline.
The defense has had some reconstruction since 2015, particularly with Ertz slotting up in midfield. In her place will be Abby Dahlkemper, who doesn’t have Ertz’s reckless abandon but has something maybe more important: the ability to pass under pressure. In two NWSL seasons, Dahlkemper is third among center backs in terms of long balls completed. Returning next to her will be Becky Sauerbrunn, veteran of the last two World Cups and a steady hand for a backline that also includes Crystal Dunn playing left back and Kelley O’Hara on the right. Both players are converted attackers (and Dunn might still see time further up the field this tournament, depending on how things go), and Sauerbrunn’s presence should help compensate for the full backs’ attacking proclivities.
Perhaps the biggest question mark for the USWNT is between the goalposts. Solo’s acrimonious exit has been well-documented, and she even criticized coach Jill Ellis this week for buckling under the brightest lights. In her place will be Alyssa Naeher, who doesn’t have Solo’s shot-stopping ability but who is probably the best goalie in the tournament in terms of distributing with the ball at her feet.
This plays into the United States’ more modern approach to this World Cup. The Americans can no longer rely on being the most talented or most athletically gifted side, but with players like Heath and Horan, they have the technical ability to break down even the most stubborn of parked buses. Ellis gets a lot of criticism from a lot of people, but the work she’s done in turning over the old generation and installing a system that works to her current charges’ talents is commendable. For the team to lift its record fourth World Cup, its top players will have to play like the best players in the world, with a support system that will value ball-retention and chance creation over individual skills. They can do it, even against tougher competition than ever before.
Goalkeepers: Alyssa Naeher (Chicago Red Stars), Ashlyn Harris (Orlando Pride), Adrianna Franch (Portland Thorns)
Defenders: Becky Sauerbrunn (Utah Royals), Kelley O’Hara (Utah Royals), Abby Dahlkemper (North Carolina Courage), Ali Krieger (Orlando Pride), Tierna Davidson (Chicago Red Stars), Emily Sonnett (Portland Thorns), Crystal Dunn (North Carolina Courage)
Midfielders: Sam Mewis (North Carolina Courage), Morgan Brian (Chicago Red Stars), Julie Ertz (Chicago Red Stars), Lindsey Horan (Portland Thorns), Rose Lavelle (Washington Spirit), Allie Long (Reign FC)
Forwards: Mallory Pugh (Washington Spirit), Carli Lloyd (Sky Blue FC), Alex Morgan (Orlando Pride), Megan Rapinoe (Reign FC), Tobin Heath (Portland Thorns), Jessica McDonald (North Carolina Courage), Christen Press (Utah Royals)
Ellis discarded the 4-4-2 systems of days past for a more modern 4-3-3 that puts her best players in their best positions to succeed. The Rapinoe-Morgan-Heath trident at the top will push opposing defenses back on to their heels. Morgan can still run past pretty much anyone, Rapinoe’s accuracy with the ball is terrifying, and Heath is almost unguardable one-on-one. Heath in particular will be given the freedom to work the ball into the box, where she can either score herself or cut it back for a Morgan tap-in. Plus, the nutmegs. So many nutmegs:
This should open up a lot of space between the lines, and that’s where Horan and creative spark-plug Rose Lavelle will feast. If there’s a problem in the midfield, it’s that all three players like to get forward. For Lavelle, that’s fine as she’s really the only true creative mid in the starting XI, but Horan and especially Ertz will need to have some positional commitment against tougher sides, so as to not get overrun on counters. Both of them are incredible headers of the ball, though, so the temptation to get into the box with a late run will have to be actively mitigated.
The defense is steady, and with Dunn and O’Hara on the sides, they have the pace and attacking wherewithal to get forward and provide even more width and crossing ability. Sauerbrunn and Dahlkemper will have the hardest roles on the team, providing stability at the back as everyone else marauds up the field. They’d rather not have to have Naeher make too many saves, letting her focus on providing a safety valve in possession instead.
The depth on this team is also remarkable, with Lloyd highlighting a group of reserves that can change games on their own. The star of the last World Cup final, Lloyd is about to turn 37, and so probably can’t handle the physicality required to play entire matches in a tourney like this, but she can still come in and score goals as needed. Sam Mewis is a midfield do-it-all who’s intelligent on and off the ball, and also the tallest ever outfield player for the United States at 5-foot-11. Morgan Brian was a hero at the last World Cup, but some horrible injuries have likely relegated her to super-sub status. Christen Press and Mallory Pugh would likely be starting, if not starring, for any other team in the world, but here, they are relegated to substitute status.
June 11, 3 p.m.: United States vs. Thailand at Stade Auguste-Delaune
June 16, 12 p.m.: United States vs. Chile at Parc des Princes
June 20, 3 p.m.: Sweden vs. United States at Stade Océane
All times Eastern