By CAITLIN MURRAY
The U.S. Women’s National Team literally could not have drawn a tougher group for next summer’s World Cup. That is a fact.
When the final ball was selected for Group D on Saturday, social media and soccer outlets exploded with the news: The USWNT was drawn into the Group of Death. None of the other groups come close in difficulty.
But is it really another World Cup, another Group of Death for the Americans? It depends on how you look at it.
“Certainly we’re in the toughest group,” coach Jill Ellis told reporters via conference call after Saturday’s draw. “It’s going to be a physically challenging group.”
Even as Ellis talked from the draw gala in Canada about how difficult each opponent would be, she suggested the challenge would motivate her players, who were training in Brazil. On cue, the very American and very confident player reactions began to trickle in on social media.
Sydney Leroux tweeted, “Bring it on.” Carli Lloyd tweeted the Group D schedule and added, “Never back down from a challenge! I love it!” Kelley O’Hara tweeted, “Let the fun begin!” while Becky Sauerbrunn simply added, “Unfazed.”
Video of the team’s reaction, later released by U.S. Soccer, seems to indicate disbelief but amusement at the draw’s result.
Alex Morgan, who had been recovering from an ankle injury and joined Fox Sports’ broadcast team instead of training with her team, reacted to the draw in real time on television. Her reaction was a bit different in tone from her teammates in Brazil.
“We got the toughest countries in all the pots,” she said. “It’s definitely the Group of Death.”
We’ve heard that before. The U.S. Men’s National Team drew the Group of Death against historical nemesis Ghana, Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal and eventual-winners Germany. But they broke through to the Round of 16 and did as well as they had in the previous cycle while Portugal and Ghana went home early.
Anything can happen at the World Cup – and that’s precisely what’s so worrying for the women, who are ranked No. 1 in the world.
The bar to advance out of the group stage is relatively low due to an expanded World Cup field. The top two teams of every group advance to the knockout stage and the four best third-place teams will also advance.
Thus, the challenge of the Group Of Death may be in exactly how the USWNT can advance out of the group.
If the USWNT wins their group, they won’t have to face another group-winner until the semifinal. Their Round of 16 opponent would be a third-place team and the quarterfinals would be a runner-up.
Avoiding group-winners is key because most other groups are filled with low-ranking teams that have qualified for their first World Cups thanks to FIFA expanding the tournament from 16 to 24 teams. Germany, France and reigning champions Japan, all seeded, are teams to avoid.
But it works the other way, too. If the USWNT advances but, say, Sweden tops the group, the road for the USWNT becomes much tougher. The Americans could end up facing Brazil in the Round of 16 – surely a team they’d prefer to avoid, as the dramatic 2011 World Cup quarterfinal reminds us.
In other words, the USWNT has to start strong if they want their best chance to make a run to the title.
Maybe, as some conspiracist fans argue, FIFA is punishing the American players for organizing a legal challenge to the artificial playing surface. FIFA assigned seeded teams to groups, rather than having them randomly placed in groups, which shows the fix was in, they say.
The problem with all that is this: The USWNT is the best team in the world. If it’s the Group of Death, it’s because the Americans are in it. It won’t be easy, but as Ellis put it: “To win this thing, you’re going to have to play good teams.”
If the Americans start of their World Cup poorly – like, say, the way they started the International Tournament of Brasilia they are currently participating in – then there’s plenty to worry about.
1. Sweden arguably should have been a seeded team. They are ranked fifth in the world and are the only team in the entire World Cup field that has defeated the Americans in the past two years. They were the lowest-ranked non-champion and were controversially denied a seeded position over Brazil.
Upping the ante, Sweden’s coach is Pia Sundhage, who led the USWNT to World Cup silver and Olympic gold in 2011 and 2012. USWNT coach Jill Ellis was her assistant coach. Sundhage led Sweden to a win over the USWNT in March, snapping a 43-game winning streak for the Americans — a moment some would say was the start of the end for coach Tom Sermanni, who replaced Sundhage when she left but was fired in April, making way for Ellis. In other words, this will be a big match to watch.
2. Australia is a very familiar opponent for the Americans and the USWNT will know exactly what to expect. The record paints a rosy picture for the Americans: they haven’t failed to beat Australia since 2005 when the two sides played to a scoreless draw.
But Australia, ranked No. 10 in the world, has been a nation on the rise in recent years – in part, due to Sermanni, who left Australia to coach the Americans, but also because they have some very good players. Players like Lisa DeVanna, Samantha Kerr and Caitlin Foord play alongside USWNT stars in the U.S.-based National Women’s Soccer League and make club life difficult for their American opponents. These players know how to beat the Americans because they’ve done it in the NWSL.
3. Nigeria may be the strongest African team in the tournament, but they are still a ways from the elite top teams of women’s soccer. Some may argue rankings don’t matter, but Nigeria is ranked No. 35 and every other nation in Group D is in the top 10. If any team is worried about the Group Of Death, it’s Nigeria.
In Nigeria’s favor, they are hardly a familiar opponent for anyone in this group. The last time the Americans faced Nigeria was all the way back on Sept. 18, 2007, which ended in a U.S. win, 1-0. As reigning winners of the African Women’s Championship, Nigeria will hope to hold onto some momentum.
What do you think about the USWNT’s place in the so-called Group of Death? What do you make of the reactions from Ellis and the players? How do you expect the group play round to go?
Share your thoughts below.