Coach Jill Ellis with Alex Morgan. KATHERINE LOTZE, GETTY IMAGES
Let’s be clear: anything less than bringing home the Women’s World Cup championship trophy in July will be a disappointment. The players will consider it a failure; fans will feel let down. That’s the pressure to succeed that will be on the USWNT this summer and it comes from expectations Team USA has earned.
FIFA’s monthly world ranking of women’s national teams started in 2003. After ranking second during the first four years (Germany was first), the USWNT has continuously ranked in the top spot since 2008, except for a dip to second for three months in 2017. The team did not lose a match in 2018, winning 18 of its 20 games, including 11 against teams in the 2019 WC. Only a WC championship in France —which would be the fourth for the US in eight WC tournaments—will be a satisfactory outcome to underscore the team’s dominance.
A championship, however, is far from predestined and the competition is strong. This a golden age for women’s soccer, with Germany, England and France within spitting distance of the US, according to FIFA rankings, and Canada, Australia and Japan not far behind.
A loss in January to France followed by successive draws to Japan and England show how tough the challenge will be. What’s at stake for the USWNT—the defending WC champions—is not only to vindicate their lofty ranking and but also to fortify their claim to being the dominant national team over the first three decades of the sport at the international level.
Coach Jill Ellis has the team prepared to realize its goals with a formidable balance of youth and experience. Ellis’s 23-player roster includes 11 who will be making their first WC appearance and 7 who will be returning for the third or fourth time. Included in this latter group are world-class defenders Becky Sauerbrunn (33 years old), Ali Krieger (34) and Kelley O’Hara (30). Adding Crystal Dunn (26) and Tierna Davidson (20) to this backline will allow Ellis to push her potent attackers forward. In the goal, Ellis shows confidence in both Ashlyn Harris (33) and Alyssa Naeher (31).
Up front are players well-known to fans and opposing defenders alike. Carli Lloyd (36), whose hat-trick in the 2015 WC final may be the greatest single-game performance ever, returns with her 107 international goals for her fourth WC. Alex Morgan (29), the 2018 US Female Player of the Year, scored an amazing 18 goals in 19 matches last year. Megan Rapinoe (33) helped her do so with a team-leading 12 assists. Tobin Heath and Christen Press, both 30, are reliable scorers. Mallory Pugh (21) is a dynamic youngster on attack and has earned a spot in Ellis’s starting lineup.
Ellis’s midfielders are young, well-conditioned and talented. Julie Ertz (27) was named to the 2015 WC All-Star team and Morgan Brian (26), who has come back from some injuries, is an elite player. Making their first WC appearances will be Rose Lavelle (23) and Sam Mewis (26). In the center as an attacking midfielder is Lindsey Horan (24) who is expected to be a standout for years to come.
Ellis coached the USWNT to the WC title in 2015 and her aim is to repeat. The team has plenty of talent and its chemistry is good. This is a squad that’s getting better rather than attempting to hold on. Certainly there is concern about some recent results earlier in the year, but those stumbles might ensure that the team shows up in France focused on the task at hand. This group will be playing for their own legacy as well as for that of past USWNT squads. It’s nice to be ranked at the top of the heap but much better to prove you belong there.