Are world champions USA still the team to beat?

Are world champions USA still the team to beat?

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USA players celebrate winning the 2019 World Cup at their welcome home parade
The USA have never finished lower than third at a Women’s World Cup

Top of the rankings and winners of the past two World Cups, the United States have developed an aura as the most feared international team in women’s football.

Boasting global superstars such as Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe, their dominance over the past decade has been unwavering and they have passed that on through generations.

The USA are looking to become the first team to win a third successive title, but despite their pedigree and resolute confidence, they may not have it all their own way in Australia and New Zealand.

‘I love the spotlight’

Alex Morgan and Sophia Smith
Alex Morgan (left) and Sophia Smith (right) are both part of the USA squad for this summer’s World Cup

“We continue to have that [winning] mentality as a country,” former USA international Kristine Lilly, whose 30 Women’s World Cup appearances is a tournament record, told BBC Sport.

“During the last eight years, the pro league has been a part of it. When we played, we didn’t really have a league so were training on our own. Now the league has an impact on players, adding to their game.

“It’s just about whether they can bring that success over to the national team and go up another level.”

Players have fought for equal rights, filing a discrimination lawsuit against US Soccer regarding equal pay in 2019, which resulted in an agreement of parity three years later.

Their push for equality has brought improvements in professionalism and performance on the national stage, while the domestic league – the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) – has also advanced.

One of the stars of this season’s NWSL is Portland Thorns forward Sophia Smith, who will make her World Cup debut.

“My role going into this tournament is going to be big but I love that. I love the spotlight, the pressure – I love it all,” said Smith, 22.

“We’re so lucky on this team to have such a deep roster. The frontline have so much fun, skill and talent but, at the same time, we all want to win. We have that grit and energy.”

USA boss Vlatko Andonovski believes they “have what it takes” to make history with a third successive World Cup triumph.

“We want to do something that has never been done before,” he said.

“The previous staff found a way and was able to push the team forward to win the last two World Cups. It is our responsibility to find the next step and keep them in front.”

‘It’s not going to be easy’

Fifa Women's World Rankings
Spain moved into the top six when the latest rankings were released in June but the top five remained the same

The USA have been going through a “bit of a transition” since 2019, says Lilly, following the retirement of two-time world champion Carli Lloyd and the phasing out of other senior players.

Only nine of the squad from 2019 remain, including six over the age of 30. They are missing experienced captain Becky Sauerbrunn, forward Mallory Swanson and midfielder Sam Mewis through injury.

Morgan, 34, still leads the attack and won the NWSL Golden Boot last season, but Rapinoe, 38, has struggled with injury.

“I want to show younger players who have not been in a major tournament what to expect, where the pressure comes from and why we need to stick together with this mentality of getting to [the final],” said Morgan.

“Lifting the trophy at the end is a reward. It will be an emotional rollercoaster and, physically, it will be more demanding than anything they have ever experienced. I want to be able to share that.”

Of those in the squad, midfielder Julie Ertz, 31, gave birth in August last year and Rose Lavelle, 28, has struggled for consistency because of injuries over the past two years.

“Some players have been injured and are coming back, and there’s young blood,” said Lilly. “They have talent, they just have to make it all work.

“It’s not going to be easy. They are reigning champions back-to-back and no team has done it three times. But I definitely think they are the team to beat.”

Andonovski has named 14 World Cup debutants in his 23-player squad including young forwards Alyssa Thompson, 18, Trinity Rodman, 21, and Smith, who was the NWSL’s most valuable player last year.

Asked whether Morgan believes they are still favourites, she added: “At the end of the day we already have a target on our back, coming in as world champions.

“There are teams who have done incredibly well and have made a name for themselves to compete for this trophy. I’m very optimistic with our chances with this roster.”

‘Other teams getting better and better’

England v Germany at Euro 2022
England won Euro 2022, while finalists Germany are ranked second in the world and remain a threat to the USA

The USA beat England in the semi-finals of the 2019 World Cup, extending an unbeaten run against the Lionesses that finally came to an end in October 2022 with a 2-1 loss at Wembley.

It was the first time in five years England had beaten the USA and they are one of several European countries who hope to prove they have closed the gap at this summer’s World Cup.

Defender Jess Carter thinks other countries have improved a lot since 2019, while midfielder Ella Toone insists the Lionesses “do not fear anyone”.

“I don’t pay much attention to the USA to be honest,” said Chelsea’s Carter, 25.

“I don’t really get what goes on around that and everyone talking about the US. They’re a great team but there are so many great teams at the tournament – I couldn’t really care less about one single team.

“Obviously they have been super successful in the past and they deserve respect because they have earned it. But the quality of [other] international teams are just getting better and better.”

The USA suffered defeats by European challengers England, Germany and Spain in 2022 and they were given stern tests by South American side Brazil and Asian giants Japan in February.

“When teams play the USA and find success they realise maybe they are not so [invincible]. Confidence-wise, it helps other teams,” said Lilly.

“The US still have that aura and confidence, but other teams have that now as well.”

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