For the first time in two years, the U.S. Women’s National Team is finally back to having competitive matches. The itch to be the best team in the world comes at full speed with the USWNT set to kick off its World Cup Qualifying campaign ahead of the 2020 World Cup.
Jill Ellis’ players can finally aim to get their disappointing exit from the 2016 Olympics out of their memories. Despite winning this summer’s SheBelieves Cup, the USWNT will look to take its first step forward on Thursday night when it kicks off Concacaf play against Mexico (7:30 p.m., Fox Sports 2, Univision Deportes)
“With this team we’re always going to get results and I’ve felt the feelings with this group of girls that I have in the past where we’ve won gold medals,” defender Becky Sauerbrunn said. “There is too much talent on team not to earn results, but to also have the performance reflect the result itself it’s important and a good feeling to have. It starts to get everybody excited about the next tournament to come.”
Being ranked No. 1 in the World will always put a bullseye on your back, no matter who the next opponent you face may be. Starting with Mexico, the USWNT will be heavy favorites to win in Cary, N.C. against a side they’ve only lost to once in 36 all-time meetings. It will be a nice opener before the team also faces Panama and Trinidad & Tobago during this seven-day stretch.
“This is a huge stretch for this team,” forward Tobin Heath said. “I think everybody just assumes cause we’re the best in the World that we automatically qualify for things and we don’t. This format is actually difficult and these matches mean a lot more in the long run than just the build-up friendlies.”
“We’re familiar with the opponents but nothing really you can do prior to the game will truly replicate over to the real thing. Our preparation has been fantastic but you always have to be ready because in 90 minutes anything can happen. The familiarity with Mexico goes out the window because the stakes are so much higher in these matches.”
10 of the 20 players in camp have yet to be a part of World Cup Qualifying in their careers, so some fresh faces have already been included for the possible future ahead. The team will still be relying on established veteran stars though. 29-year-old Alex Morgan remains as vital to the attacking front as ever, while 36-year-old Carli Lloyd still remains an important member of the midfield.
Julie Ertz and NWSL MVP Lindsay Horan will also be expected to start in the midfield while Heath, Megan Rapinoe, and Sauerbrunn all add veteran experience throughout the remainder of the squad. Ashlyn Harris takes over as the starting goalkeeper, while Rose Lavelle and Mallory Pugh add depth to the attack.
“The last two years, there was so much changeover with the team, it was so broad with so many different players and formations and lineups, and it sort of made it purposely chaotic,” Rapinoe said. “I think it forced us individually and as a team to figure it out, and everyone who has figured it out is now narrowed into this group here at qualifying and we’re working well with each other. It was challenging and sometimes frustrating, but we’re out on the other side of it and much better assembled for it.”
The USWNT may need to tinker with its lineup during this busy stretch, but know their odds of advancing are high. The top three teams out of the remaining eight nations will advance to the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup in France, while a fourth side will face Argentina in a playoff to also advance.
Still, the Americans must be ready for anything following their exit from the Olympics two years prior. Canada and Costa Rica will also be favorites to advance and could very well meet the U.S. in the semifinals on Oct. 14th. Considering its history in CONCACAF qualifying, the Americans should be dominant in their matches as they seek another step toward a World Cup title in 2019.