This isn’t the USA girls’s staff you suppose it’s. Sure, USA are in quest of an unprecedented third successive World Cup title. Sure, USA are nonetheless ranked No 1 on the earth by Fifa. And sure, there’s a goal on their collective again as one of many perennial favourites at any main match. The gamers who received in 2019 although? They’re largely absent.
Simply 9 of the 23 named in USA’s World Cup squad had been a part of the triumph 4 years in the past, of whom solely 5 additionally took half on the 2015 match. Information of captain Becky Sauerbrunn’s foot damage, which is able to hold her out of what would have been the 38-year-old’s fourth World Cup, solely underscores the dramatic turnover that has performed out through the previous 18 months. If USA are to “threepeat”, they may accomplish that with a vastly youthful and fewer skilled group.
“I don’t need us to really feel like now we have one thing to lose; we solely have one thing to realize,” Sauerbrunn stated earlier than her damage. “I don’t need us to really feel like we’re defending championships. We’re truly attacking this new one.”
4 years in the past the US had been clear and simple favourites. They hit their peak on the excellent second for a match that arrived on the unsuitable time for in any other case proficient groups comparable to Spain and Australia. The US had been the one non-European staff among the many final eight and picked off 4 consecutive European opponents within the knockout levels to say the title. This time round, nonetheless, the squad is crammed with questions and doubtlessly dangerous options.
Accidents have decimated the plans of the pinnacle coach, Vlatko Andonovski, at each flip. At first of the squad overhaul in early 2022, playmaker Catarina Macario was set to be the point of interest of the assault. The one query was if she could be higher because the withdrawn centre-forward or the No 10. Macario tore an anterior cruciate ligament final spring and has not but returned to the sector.
Sam Mewis, a beginning central midfielder in 2019 and a standout for Manchester Metropolis quickly after that, has not performed in over a yr on account of a knee damage. Christen Press, the electrical ahead who scored a vital purpose in an surprising semi-final begin towards England 4 years in the past, has not totally recovered from a torn ACL.
Then got here the more moderen, gutting blows: Sauerbrunn’s damage and Mallory Swanson’s torn patella tendon suffered in an April pleasant towards Eire. Swanson scored seven objectives within the first six video games of the yr for america, at occasions dragging the staff by means of moments of wrestle.
“It will possibly’t be emphasised sufficient how huge of a loss Becky Sauerbrunn was, as a result of it’s a younger and inexperienced group. You want leaders and Becky is that,” the previous US worldwide Heather O’Reilly tells the Guardian.
Certain, there are acquainted names – Alex Morgan, the 2019 Golden Ball winner Megan Rapinoe, and defender Kelley O’Hara (one other participant restricted by accidents this spring) are again for his or her fourth World Cups. Rose Lavelle is a greater, extra established midfield presence now after her breakout 2019 World Cup, though she spent practically three months sidelined by a knee damage this spring.
A lot of the squad, nonetheless, is much much less skilled on the worldwide stage. Midfielder Savannah DeMelo is just the third participant in US historical past to make a World Cup squad earlier than her first cap. The 18-year-old Alyssa Thompson, who’s successfully Swanson’s substitute, is the second youngest participant to be chosen by the US for a World Cup.
A number of first-time World Cup members will play distinguished roles. There may be Sophia Smith, the 2022 Nationwide Girls’s Soccer League MVP, who will patrol one of many wings alongside Morgan. Then there’s the centre-back Naomi Girma, the No 1 choose in final yr’s NWSL draft who, as a rookie, was named the league’s greatest defender.
“The advantages that go together with [inexperience] are that you just’re simply wide-eyed and fearless,” says O’Reilly, who will probably be an analyst for Fox at this World Cup. “All through my profession, I used to be far more fearless after I was youthful since you don’t realise the magnitude of issues.”
An injection of youth (and their subsequent inexperience) isn’t cause alone to be down on the US’s prospects. It was the method undertaken for this generational shift, and the shortage of clear outcomes, that begged questions. Consecutive losses to England, Spain and Germany final autumn produced the staff’s first hat-trick of defeats in 30 years.
The midfield was one of many extra regarding parts of these defeats, significantly since their opponents served as the primary elite checks of this new American group.
For 18 months after the Tokyo Olympics, hypothesis surrounded the midfield: how can Julie Ertz get replaced? The plain reply of “she will’t be” finally yielded an ironic conclusion: solely she might substitute herself.
Ertz, who gave beginning to her son in August 2022, surprisingly introduced her return to taking part in in March. She got here off the bench within the April friendlies towards Eire then signed with Angel Metropolis for the chance to play in lower than a dozen membership matches earlier than the match.
Ertz will almost certainly be the starting defensive midfielder in Australia and New Zealand, but will she be anything close to the 2019 version of herself, arguably the best and most irreplaceable player in the world? Andonovski has made the bet that she can be, despite limited time to test the theory.
There are questions for the US to answer in every department of the team, creating at least the perception of a historical giant on unstable footing. In that regard it should be remembered that eight years ago, doubts swirled around the team during the group stages only for them to click in the quarter-finals and claim the trophy in Canada.
O’Reilly sees parallels to the last major generational shift in the team, one she witnessed first-hand. She made her debut as a teenager in 2002 and was part of the 2004 team that won an Olympic gold. What followed was a drastic and difficult overhaul as the “Fab Five” – Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Kristine Lilly, Brandi Chastain, and Joy Fawcett – began to retire. A new wave of players came in and the 2007 World Cup was, by the US’s standards, a disaster. They lost 4-0 to Brazil in the semi-finals and ended the tournament with clear and public division among the team after a controversial goalkeeper change.
A number of younger gamers throughout that period, nonetheless, turned the core of a bunch that may win the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, end runners-up on the 2011 World Cup and win the 2015 version (earlier than a repeat in 2019). O’Reilly was a part of these experiences till 2015.
“This isn’t the primary time that this query has been raised,” she says concerning the mentality of the present group. “There have been most likely lots of people that had been questioning about this new crop of gamers, which I used to be in. This isn’t the primary time that these questions have been answered by way of a transition second.”
A comparatively beneficial draw might nicely assist the hunt for extra world glory. Australia, the stronger of the host international locations, are on the opposite facet of the knockout bracket, as are Brazil, Canada, England, France and Germany.
If the US can win their group – which is able to doubtless be determined by the 2019 last rematch with the Netherlands – there’s a pathway to the ultimate that may absorb a last-16 encounter with both Italy or South Africa and, doubtlessly, a semi-final date with Sweden. That, too, shares parallels with 2015, when knockout video games towards Colombia and China allowed america to develop into the match.
To faux World Cup preparations for the US have been something like these for the previous two cycles could be disingenuous, nonetheless. By no means earlier than has this a lot of the squad regarded so unsure.
If the US are to win a fifth World Cup it will likely be a grind. Expertise and potential are ample among the many group, however World Cups are about timing. This one is likely to be too quickly for a juggernaut nonetheless present process a transform.
Knowledge and graphics by Julian Amani.