All eyes will be on Sophia Smith and if she can score key goals for the USA. (John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports)
By Michael Lewis
To many observers, the U.S. women’s national team enters the Women’s World Cup as favorites.
The Americans are two-time defending champions, vying for an unprecedented third consecutive World Cup, and a record fifth overall for women.
They have many of the ingredients to go far in the competition.
The U.S. has enjoyed varying success on the other side of the world.
The Americans won the 1991 Women’s World Cup. They earned a silver medal at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. They finished a disappointing third at the 2007 Women’s World Cup in China (remember that goalkeeping controversy) and return to the country to secure the gold medal at the 2008 Summer Games.
This is a good U.S. team. But is it a great U.S. team?
Good is not good enough in a World Cup. Teams need to be outstanding. I am not certain the Americans have to yet to ascend to that category. Perhaps they will in New Zealand Australia.
It will be a tall task, giving the potential opposition in the knockout round from the likes of Germany, England, Spain, France, Sweden and even Brazil (the South American side is directed by former USWNT head coach Pia Sundhage, the architect of a couple of surprise results against the USA in the World Cup and Olympics when she guided the Swedes).
For starters, anything less than a 3-0-0 record in the group stage will be considered a major disappointment. The U.S. opens the tournament against cup debutants Vietnam on Friday at 9 p.m. ET on FOX (actually, the game will go down in the books as a Saturday game because it will kick off on the other side of the International Dateline in Auckland, New Zealand).
Not unlike Brazilian supporters and their men’s team, U.S. women’s fans have gotten so accustomed to their heroes winning everything, that a close game sometimes can be considered disappointing. Well, welcome to 2023, where the team might wind up playing tighter matches before because the middle and lower rung teams have closed the gap.
While I would love to see the USA make history by becoming the first team to win three World Cups (men or women), I am not convinced they have all the pieces to do so. I am trying to think logically, not passionately, like many fans would.
I have so many questions, with so little time until the kickoff.
Can the youngsters emerge as scoring stars?
With Mallory Swanson suffering a devastating torn patellar tendon prior to the cup, the U.S.’s ultimate goal-scoring fate likely will fall to 22-year-old Sophia Smith and 20-year-old Trinity Rodman. The Americans have a history of young players emerging and filling the net in international competitions in the World Cup and Olympics. Given how close the margins are these days, they don’t have to score a bucket load of goals, but in key spots. That would be the first goal of the game to give the Americans some momentum or to break a deadlock in the second half of a knockout match. At the age of 34, it would not be fair to expect Alex Morgan to take a lion’s share of the scoring load.
What sort of impact can Megan Rapinoe make?
Rapinoe, who won the Golden Ball and Golden Boot at France 2019, will be a minor player this time as a late-match substitute and a veteran presence on a squad that has nine veterans from the last World Cup, and 14 newcomers.
How much time will Rose Lavelle see on the field?
One of the biggest impact players in 2019, Bronze Ball winner Rose Lavelle hasn’t played a competitive match in weeks due to a knee injury. She essentially was bubble-wrapped when the team journeyed to New Zealand. The USA needs Lavelle in the midfield along with Lindsey Horan if it wants to go deep in the competition. If not, the U.S. could suffer the consequences in the latter rounds.
Can Julie Ertz repeat her performance of four years ago?
Yeah, we make a big deal out of goal-scorers, but players such as Julie Ertz, who do much grunt work, don’t necessarily get the headlines. But holding and defensive midfielders break up plays before they gete to the defensive third and sometimes turn them into counterattacks. After giving birth to her first child, Madden, last August, Ertz returned to training. She worked out with the Phoenix Rising Under-20 men’s team (USL Championship) and Angel City FC. But she hasn’t played internationally recent. We will see soon enough.
Can Vlatko Andonovski make the right decisions in pressure situations?
The problem with a team that takes early leads and occasionally roll over its opponents, is that its coach might not have dealt with much adversity. When push comes to shove in a close knockout round match, will Andonovski push the right buttons (correct substitutions at the correct times)? Andonovski, by the way, will try to become the first men’s coach to direct the USA to the title since Tony DiCicco in 1999.
Can the defense hold up?
The back four of Crystal Dunn, Naomi Girma, Alana Cook and Emily Fox hardly played together as a unit prior to the World Cup in front of goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher. That means knowing where your platoon-mates are going to be and lining up correctly to pull the opposition offside. It takes time to get the timing right. That’s why Becky Sauerbrunn’s decision not to play due to a foot injury could wind up being the biggest absence for the team.
As I detailed in another column I posted on Thursday, an excellent defense can propel a team to a title.
The USA has won three of its four world titles by limiting the opposition to three goals (1999, 2015 and 2019). That was the least by a team that went deep in the tournament. The Americans’ 1991 championship side in the first World Cup conceded five goals. The defense must lock down strikers on a regular basis because the margins will be small in the latter rounds.