When the U.S. takes the field in France for its Women’s World Cup opener this month, it will do so as the reigning champion. But for coach Jill Ellis, there’s a big difference between holding the title and defending it.
“Every team is different. So this isn’t a team that’s defending something because a lot of that team isn’t here,” said Ellis, who is missing five players from the 14 she used in the last World Cup final four years ago. “That’s kind of how we’re looking at it. Go attack another World Cup. Because four years is a long time in terms of professional sports teams.”
That attack begins June 11 about 80 miles northeast of Paris in Reims, which Ellis will be happy to know is also called the City of Kings because of its once-prominent ceremonial role in the crowning of monarchs. The top-ranked U.S. will open against No. 34 Thailand.
Ellis’ team, which includes 11 World Cup debutantes, has lost just once since July 2017, but that loss came against France in Le Havre, in one of just five games the U.S. has played outside its borders in that period.
“To walk out in that game in January into a very pro-French crowd was a great learning experience,” said Alyssa Naeher, who is replacing Hope Solo, the winningest goalkeeper in international soccer history. “Fortunately I think a lot of these younger players have played in youth World Cups or things like that. So it’s not a completely foreign concept to play in front of a hostile crowd.”
Among the veterans who have done that more than once are Carli Lloyd, a two-time world player of the year making her fourth World Cup appearance, and forwards Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe, who will be in the tournament for the third time.
And while Ellis says she’s not viewing this as a title defense, her players have made it clear they don’t intend to leave their trophy in France.
“We are going to the World Cup to win it and anything else would be a failure for us,” forward Christen Press said. “That’s the DNA of this team. That was the expectation long before I was ever on it. For us it’s embracing that, using that as fuel and motivation and just being really excited for what’s to come.”
World ranking: 1
How qualified: Winner, 2018 CONCACAF Championship
Last World Cup: 2015, champion
Best World Cup finish: Champion, three times
Key players: F Alex Morgan, F Megan Rapinoe, GK Alyssa Naeher, D Crystal Dunn
Outlook: When Sweden beat the U.S. in the 2016 Olympic quarterfinals by putting as many as 10 women in front of the goal and playing for penalty kicks, it showed the rest of the world the recipe for beating the reigning World Cup champions. Coach Jill Ellis is expecting to see the same strategy in France because when teams play the U.S. straight up, the Americans have lost just once since August 2017. That loss came in France to the World Cup hosts last January, by the way. If everything goes to form, the teams could meet against in the quarterfinals in Paris. Between the loss in Rio and early 2018, Ellis called 60 players into camp, allowing 15 to make their national team debuts. She hasn’t had a choice in the matter — since stepping off the victory stand in 2015, Ellis has watched a half-dozen key contributors leave, among them Abby Wambach, international soccer’s all-time leading scorer, and goalkeeper Hope Solo.
World ranking: 34
How qualified: Fourth place, 2018 Asian Cup
Last World Cup: 2015, group stage
Best World Cup finish: Group stage, 2015
Key players: MF Silawan Intamee, F Pitsamai Sornsai, F Kanjana Sungngoen, MF Rattikan Thongsombut
Outlook: Thailand made its Women’s World Cup debut four years ago and proved to be overmatched, getting shut out in two of three games. This team may not fare much better, but that doesn’t make it any less interesting. Forward Taneekarn Dangda, whose childhood dream was to be a model, accomplished that when she competed in Thailand’s supermodel contest four years ago. She then followed her father, a former player with Royal Thai Air Force FC, into soccer. Tiffany Sornpao, who was born in Georgia and has Danish citizenship, is a backup goalkeeper at Georgia’s Kennesaw State University. The Thais won the 2018 ASEAN Football Federation tournament, outscoring teams like Cambodia and Timor-Leste 37-5 in six games.
World ranking: 39
How qualified: Runner-up, 2018 Copa America
Last World Cup: None
Best World Cup finish: None
Key players: GK Christiane Endler, MF Francisca Lara, F Maria Jose Rojas, F Yanara Aedo
Outlook: Chile, which did not play a game from 2014 through May 2017, qualified for it first Women’s World Cup with a surprising second-place finish, behind Brazil, in last year’s Copa America Femenina. It has struggled since then, however, going winless in its first nine games this year, including a 7-0 thrashing from the Netherlands in April. Chile’s squad is young and inexperienced on the international stage, with no player coming to France with more than 23 caps. But the team doesn’t lack for talent: nine play professionally in Spain while goalkeeper Endler, a six-time national player of the year, plays for French superclub Paris Saint-Germain. She played collegiately at South Florida.
World ranking: 9
How qualified: Winner, UEFA qualification group 4
Last World Cup: 2015, round of 16
Best World Cup finish: Runner-up, 2003
Key players: GK Hedvig Lindahl, MF Caroline Seger, F Sofia Jakobsson, D Nilla Fischer
Outlook: The Swedes have made it past the group stage in six of the previous seven World Cups, reaching the 2003 final and the semifinals twice. The team it will send to France is predictably experienced, boasting six players with at least 100 international caps. That group is led by midfielder Seger, the team’s captain since 2009, and Fischer, who recently moved from the midfield to center back. Missing, however, is striker Lotta Schelin, the country’s all-time leading scorer who was forced into retirement by injury. Under coach Peter Gerhardsson, who replaced the legendary Pia Sundhage following Sweden’s run to the quarterfinals of the 2017 Euros, Sweden lost just twice last year and won its group in UEFA qualifying.
June 11: Chile vs. Sweden, U.S. vs. Thailand
June 16: Sweden vs. Thailand, U.S. vs. Chile
June 20: Sweden vs. U.S., Thailand vs. Chile