The U.S. women’s soccer team could have a relatively straightforward path to a third consecutive, and fifth overall, World Cup title.
Drawn into Group E on Saturday for next summer’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, the Americans would not see European champion England, Olympic gold medalist Canada, two-time World Cup winner Germany or France until the finals. Spain, which routed the USWNT in a friendly earlier this month, and old foe Sweden are on the same side of the bracket, but the Americans aren’t likely to see either until the semifinals.
So long as the USWNT wins the group, that is, which includes a rematch with the Netherlands, their opponent in the 2019 World Cup final.
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“We’ve got a good but somewhat tough draw. I’m excited about it,” U.S. coach Vlatko Andonovski said on FS1 after the draw, which took place in Auckland, New Zealand.
The Americans open the tournament July 22 against Vietnam, a team it’s never played. They then face the Netherlands on July 27 and wrap up group play on Aug. 1 against the winner of a February playoff involving Portugal, Thailand and Cameroon.
The travel schedule is also favorable to the Americans’ title hopes. The tournament is being played in both Australia and New Zealand, but the U.S. women could have all but one game in New Zealand until the final in Sydney on Aug. 20.
“We started preparing for the World Cup a long time ago. Now when we know the opponents, it’s digging deep, getting into details,” Andonovski said. “It’s not just preparing for the World Cup, we’re preparing for the opponents, as well.”
This will be the first women’s tournament with 32 teams, a sign of the game’s growing strength. But it will also make for some mismatches – think that 13-0 drubbing of Thailand in the USWNT’s group-stage opener four years ago – and some obvious choices to advance.
In Group E, that will be the U.S. women and the Netherlands. In addition to beating the Netherlands 2-0 in the 2019 final, the Americans outlasted the Dutch on penalty kicks in the quarterfinals of the Tokyo Olympics last summer.
“I don’t see this as a rematch of any of those matches,” Andonovski said. “We are bringing a different group, they are going to have a slightly different lineup, as well. Even though it’s going to be a good game, it’s going to be a good matchup, it’s going to be a good show, it’s not going to be a rematch of any of the previous games.”
Should the Americans win Group E, they would play the second-place team in Group G, likely Italy. That would set up a quarterfinal match likely against either Japan or Norway, and a semifinal match possibly against either Spain or Sweden.
But if the USWNT finishes second to the Netherlands in the group stage, the path to an unprecedented three-peat gets a lot tougher. It would mean the Americans would likely face Sweden in the round of 16.
The USWNT has played Sweden more times at the Olympics and World Cup than any other opponent, including being in the same group at the last five World Cups and last summer’s Olympics. Sweden dominated the Americans 3-0 in that opener in Tokyo, setting the tone for unsettled performances throughout the Olympics that resulted in a bronze medal.
It also was Sweden that ousted the Americans in the quarterfinals of the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, the USWNT’s earliest exit ever at a major tournament.
“We have a lot of work to do in the next year,” Lindsey Horan said on the post-draw show on FS1. “We obviously come off these two (losses) against England and Spain (this month), and you see the competitiveness, you see the game changing and how the game is evolving.
“We lost two games,” she added. “Of course you can talk about all the players that were missing and whatnot, but we need to be better. We need to learn and grow from these.”