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U.S. prepares for another deep run in the World Cup, thanks to experience

Members of the United States women’s national soccer team react while while playing a foosball table
Members of the U.S. women’s national soccer team take a look at a table football game with players featuring their likenesses during a media day May 24 in New York.
(Seth Wenig / Associated Press)

When their heads hit their pillows Monday night, the players on the U.S. national team knew when they awoke that their long wait would be over. The Women’s World Cup would finally be here, with the Americans facing Thailand in their tournament opener Tuesday night.

The U.S. has never lost a Women’s World Cup opener — and has lost just one of 21 previous group-play matches, reaching the final in the last two tournaments and finishing in the top three all seven times. And this team is eager to get its journey started.

“The first game, there’s so much excitement, so much emotion,” forward Christen Press said.

“We’ve been counting down to our first game. I think we started our countdown in the hundreds and we were counting hundreds of days.”

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But it’s unlikely Press or any of the other players tossed and turned through a sleepless night. Former national team player Heather O’Reilly, who was on three World Cup teams, said now is the not the time to question your preparation.

“I don’t think there’s much doubt in people’s heads,” said O’Reilly, in France as an analyst for Fox Soccer. “I doubt that there are too many people that are thinking back instead of thinking ahead. That what’s got them there. If you have regrets, you’re not on this team.”

And though the top-ranked U.S. has a group-stage match looming next week with Sweden, the country that eliminated the team from the 2016 Olympics, as well as a possible knockout-round match with France, O’Reilly said she doesn’t believe anyone is looking past No. 34 Thailand, a team the Americans should easily brush aside.

“The team is really trained to just sort of look [at] what’s right in front of their face,” she said. “As cliche as that sounds, I bet the players are just thinking about how do I get on the field for Thailand. If I am in the starting lineup against Thailand, what am I going to do?

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“Your day-to-day preparation just kind of takes over and your habits take over. If I had to guess, I would guess they are attempting their hardest to treat this like another training camp.”

So, probably, is coach Jill Ellis, who didn’t lose a game in her first World Cup four years ago. Barring any late injuries, she’ll likely stick to the attacking 4-3-3 formation she used in the three-game send-off series.

Alex Morgan will center a front three flanked by Tobin Heath and Megan Rapinoe. Julie Ertz, Lindsey Horan — if fit — and Rose Lavelle make up the rugged midfield with Kelley O’Hara, Abby Dahlkemper, Becky Sauerbrunn and Crystal Dunn starting along the back line. Alyssa Naeher will open in goal.

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Tuesday’s game will be the 12th the Americans have played outside the U.S. since the last World Cup, and they are 7-1-3 in the previous 11, the only loss coming in France, to France, in January. That is the team’s only loss in 38 games dating to July 2017.

But five of Tuesday’s projected starters, plus eight bench players, have never appeared in a World Cup game. And Horan, one of the debutantes, said the team’s veteran players have tried to keep the new ones focused.

“I’ve gotten so much advice from so many of the older players that this is one of the best experiences in your life and to add extra pressure right before our first game isn’t helping,” she said. “So I feel like I’m just enjoying the moment and enjoy the tournament and getting to watch some of the best players in the world.”

But Press and the other veterans have also reminded her she’s at the World Cup to do more than watch.

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“Our expectations are always clear and they actually don’t need to be said,” Press said. “We are going to the World Cup to win it and anything else would be a failure. That’s the DNA of this team. That was the expectation long before I was ever on it.”

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Ellis responds to Hope Solo

Ellis was asked Monday about comments made by Hope Solo, her former goalkeeper, who said in a BBC interview over the weekend that Ellis “is not the leader I wish her to be” and “cracks under the pressure quite a bit.”

“Over the past five years I’ve made a lot of important decisions,” Ellis said. “I have processes to make those decisions. At this point everything and every focus is about this group of players that are here now.

“Pundits out there, that’s part of it. And part of the message always is to make sure the focus is on the internal part of the game.”

Solo, who appeared in three World Cups, hasn’t played for the U.S. since she was suspended six months and had her contract terminated after calling Sweden “a bunch of cowards” during the 2016 Olympics.

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kevin.baxter@latimes.com | Twitter: @kbaxter11


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