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Is the USWNT really facing the World Cup’s Group of Death?

Women's World Cup ball trophy Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports
Photo by Marc DesRosiers/USA TODAY Sports



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.


  1. I think we can top any group in a 3 game series, and then it open water to the semis. Better face the tough teams in the beginning where a hiccup doesn’t finish you.

  2. good write up but disagree with:

    “The USWNT is the best team in the world. If it’s the Group of Death, it’s because the Americans are in it.”

    IMO, it’s a group of death because of the other teams in it. like stated, the US is #1 so it only becomes a group of death (GoD) when the rest of the group is filled up with lower ranking, yet still strong, teams. this is the logic LD used when he said the USMNT was in the GoD because we were in it. Germany didn’t make it the GoD. not even Portugal. it was the GoD because Ghana and the US were also in it.

    • if Thailand was in the group instead of the USWNT, it wouldn’t be a group of death. Basically if the USWNT and Sweden were in any group, it would be a GoD for the other teams. The argument here is people think this is a GoD for the USA because of how strong the other three teams are. I don’t really buy that. If they truly are the best (debatable these days) then it shouldn’t matter, they should be like Germany on the men’s side. Its a tough group for the USA but only a true GoD for Nigeria and Australia, IMO. Those two teams should be very worried about their chances of advancing.

      • “if Thailand was in the group instead of the USWNT, it wouldn’t be a group of death.”

        and if Thailand was in the group instead of Sweden, it wouldn’t be a GoD. that logic doesn’t work because you could continuously flip it around.

        “Basically if the USWNT and Sweden were in any group, it would be a GoD for the other teams.”

        that is not how it works though. it’s only a GoD when the other teams in the group still have a solid chance at advancing, despite the favorites found in the group. in other words, the 3rd and 4th team determine how hard the group will be. you have to assume any team from Pot A and Pot B is going to be tough. that’s why they’re in Pot A and B.

        “The argument here is people think this is a GoD for the USA because of how strong the other three teams are. I don’t really buy that. If they truly are the best (debatable these days) then it shouldn’t matter”

        i agree with that last part. in my mind, the Pot A team (unless you are the Swiss in WC’14) should not care if the other teams consider it the GoD because they are expected to go through no matter what the make up of the group is. if the group was made up of the USA and another solid team plus two weak teams, the US is expected to go through. if the US is in a group like they are, they are still expected to go through but it’s the other teams that have to worry about the matches not against the US. thus, creating a GoD. using the USMNT as an example, we had pretty much determined Germany was a loss of 3 points…that’s why we were so happy it was our 3rd game. but we knew we could, and had to, get points from Ghana and Portugal. those two teams had the same thought process except i’m sure Portugal had the mindset of grabbing a point from Germany (right or wrong).

        “Its a tough group for the USA but only a true GoD for Nigeria and Australia, IMO. Those two teams should be very worried about their chances of advancing.”

        agreed, which is why it’s a GoD because of them and not us. we are expected to go through one way or the other, just as Germany was for the men’s. it was the USA, Ghana, and Portugal that had to worry.

        now, this is not to say that the US (or Germany) being in the group did not contribute it to being called the GoD. obviously it did given their rankings. but the kicker were the teams from the other pots.

        to be honest, it’s kind of a “chicken or the egg” debate but i am of the opinion it’s the other 2-3 teams that are the reason our group is being called the GoD.

    • Its the Group of Death because the Number 1, Number 5, and Number 10th ranked teams in the group are in the same group along with the best team in Africa ranked Number 35. What the author is saying is that those other nations have more to fear from the US than the other way around. The US has a tremendous reputation and has reached a level of success that those other nations have not.

      • did you even read my comments? who said otherwise? your comment shows you are not comprehending the conversation/disagreement with the author’s statement or you simply didn’t read everything.

        no one, not one person, is questioning the other nations have more to fear than the US. in fact, the whole conversation above this was on this exact topic. the US should not care who is in their group because they are the US. nor is anyone talking those teams having the same level of success as the US.

        the debate is what makes this group the GoD: Because the US is in it? Or Because the other 3 teams are in it?

  3. I also concur. If the US believes they can win it all then it doesnt matter who they have to play. U need to be the best to be the best and if u have doubts then ur in trouble. Now something can be made of the fact that a walk over game along the way would give them a chance to rest starters but there is no team deeper and better conditioned than the US so that shouldnt be a factor either. If the offense is ready (not yet) and the defense is WC quality (not yet) they r poised to win it. If they come in without a solid offense and defense and show lack of focus, someone else will be raising the cup.

    • How come it took Germany over 20 years to win its 4th World Cup? Are you suggesting that in order to be the best in the world you have to win the World Cup every single time or within a unspecified time frame? You have to ignore all the other tournaments orr matches won and solely base your criteria on World Cup victories? That’s an impossible task for any nation to pull off.

  4. Excellent article. IMHO, the USWNT’s link up play through the middle needs a lot more work. The China result should be a wake up. The team just seems less cohesive than in the past.

    • I agree.

      But context still needs to brought in.

      The US team should still be miles ahead of most of their competition because of a full-time women’s program, a proper league, the college program, a history of winners, home-field-like support because Canada is a quick hop away, etc.

      The group honestly shouldn’t be a competition. Stuff happens, and will always happen at a tournament but like Caitlin said, “Sweden is the ONLY team in the World Cup field that has beaten the US in TWO YEARS.” Come on people.

      So when the USMNT is drawn in the group of death, it’s because we’re facing teams or individual players still miles better than us.

      When the USWNT team is drawn in the group of death, we’re miles better than everyone else, better trained, equipped, and paid.

      The reason I don’t follow the women’s game is because it’s boring. When your team loses once or twice every two years, what’s the point? There’s no drama, except in the personal lives of its players (thanks Hope). It’s like watching basketball at the Olympics.

      Though if recent World Cups are any indication, the team will choke at the finals.

      • Actually Sweden was the first team to beat the US in two years, but not the only team. Sweden ended the winning streak and the US wentn on to lose its next match to Denmark 5-3. The US has not lost two matches in a row for well over a decade. It wasn’t just who we lost too, but how we lost. Denmark was full of young players and scored 5 goals on the USA. They had 6 shots on goal the entire match and converted almost all of them. That’s one of the main reasons Sermanni was fired.

        The US is still struggling and the number of draws tells the story. They aren’t clicking as a team yet. Our defense is getting burnt on counter attacks, the mid-field looks like a hot mess ever since we lost Shannon Box and our forwards are struggling to score.

        It could be all the personal changes under Sermanni. It could be the new formation under Ellis. It could be a lack of a proper defensive mid-fielder under both regimes. It could be all of the above.

        I just hope they figure it out before the World Cup.

      • Sweden is the only team in the 2015 World Cup that has beaten the USWNT in the past two years. Denmark didn’t qualify for the World Cup. The article is right.

      • I do think its valid though that while the USA hasnt been losing, they haven’t been playing very well. Losing to Denmark was a WTF moment 100%. We haven’t lost to China or Trinidad & Tobago but we’ve come closer than we should have IMO. I think the argument goes both ways, depends if we step up as we often do in challenging games!

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