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The USWNT Is No Longer in a League of Its Own at the World Cup

The American women’s team faces fierce competition in France. Who are the tournament’s favorites? Why is one of the world’s best players sitting out? Here are the story lines to watch as the games get set to begin.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The greatest tournament in the world is back. Starting Friday, when host nation France plays South Korea, the Women’s World Cup will run for the next month—and give U.S. soccer fans not just a team actually in the tournament, but a favorite to win the whole thing.

In 2015, the U.S. won its first World Cup since 1999 with a 5-2 thrashing of Japan in the final. Carli Lloyd scored a first-half hat trick, including one goal in which she chipped the keeper from midfield, and the trophy returned to American hands. But in 2019, the competition is deeper and better than ever, as women’s soccer continues to grow across the world, and the Americans’ talent gap diminishes every year.

The U.S. kicks off its World Cup run on Tuesday against Thailand, but with a whole month of soccer to get to, let’s preview the tournament by breaking down some key story lines. In the words of American midfielder McCall Zerboni—who, somewhat controversially, did not make the U.S. roster—this is a tournament for “fucking winners.”

The Format

As in the 2015 tournament, 24 teams are split into six groups of four. After round-robin play, the top two teams from each group qualify for the next round, as do the four third-place teams with the most points. With so many teams qualifying, a squad needn’t play perfect soccer from the start to advance: In 2015, for instance, Switzerland qualified with one win and two losses in group play, and Sweden reached the knockout rounds with three draws.

Due to this generous format, it is almost inconceivable that a top contender could fail to qualify for the knockout rounds. In 2015, besides North Korea, which was banned due to a doping scandal, each of the top 12 teams in FIFA’s rankings at the time reached the round of 16.

FiveThirtyEight’s forecast illustrates this predictive ease. The U.S., England, Japan, Australia, France, Sweden, Germany, Brazil, the Netherlands, and Canada all enjoy odds north of 90 percent to advance—that’s more than half the knockout rounds’ field of 16 as near shoo-ins.

Where in the World Is the Best Player in the World?

As the sport’s best players descend on France for the latest edition of the best sporting event in the world, one player will be noticeably absent. Norway’s Ada Hegerberg, the inaugural women’s Ballon d’Or award winner in 2018 who was last seen scoring a hat trick in just 16 minutes in the Champions League final, won’t play at the World Cup, despite Norway’s qualification.

Hegerberg hasn’t played for Norway in two years because, as she told a Norwegian newspaper, “I think that women’s football does not have the respect it should have in Norway.” After Hegerberg left the team, the Norwegian federation agreed to pay both the men’s and women’s senior teams equally and appointed a woman as the director of the national teams, but Hegerberg’s dissatisfaction about the development of women’s soccer in her country persisted, and she will not play in France.

Gendered treatment is not an isolated incident for Hegerberg; the presenter of her Ballon d’Or trophy, DJ Martin Solveig, asked her to twerk on stage. Her refusal to play in the World Cup speaks to wider fissures in women’s soccer and women’s sports at large, which will be a subcurrent that runs throughout this month’s tournament. In March, the U.S. women filed a lawsuit against the American federation, alleging “institutionalized gender discrimination,” while similar complaints have led to upheaval of coaching situations and skewed policies across the soccer world.

The State of the USWNT

The U.S. women are the defending champions and top-rated team in the world by both FIFA’s rankings and FiveThirtyEight’s scoring system. Their roster is full of World Cup veterans, and they’re the Vegas favorites to win again. Since a surprisingly early exit at the 2016 Olympics—the first time the Americans had ever missed the semifinals of a major tournament—they have won 39 games, tied four, and lost just three. (And two of those losses came in March 2017; they’ve lost just once in 2.5 years.)

On a positional basis, they’re strongest at the front and weakest at the back. Lloyd, Mallory Pugh, and Christen Press would form one of the best attacking trios at this tournament—and they’re the U.S.’s backups on the front line. Ahead of them are a set of world-class starters with complementary skill sets: Alex Morgan is the finisher, and in her best form in years; Tobin Heath provides on-ball creativity and attacking verve; and Megan Rapinoe spends each match conjuring goal-scoring opportunities from all angles, for herself and her teammates.

The three-woman midfield, with presumed starters Julie Ertz (a central defender for the 2015 squad who has since advanced up the field), Rose Lavelle, and Lindsey Horan, offers a mix of defensive chops and attacking pressure. But the back line is comparatively less proven, with a few new faces in defense and a new goalkeeper, Alyssa Naeher, who becomes the first no. 1 American keeper other than Hope Solo and Briana Scurry since the 1994 World Cup.

The Americans qualified for the World Cup with ease. In the 2018 CONCACAF Championship, which doubled as the region’s qualification tournament, the U.S. outscored its opposition by a combined margin of 26-0 in five wins. The quality of that opposition played some role in the lopsided scores, however. Besides the U.S. and Canada—against whom the U.S. won by a relatively light 2-0 line—no North American country ranks within the top 25 of FIFA’s world rankings.

That discrepancy points to a staggering split in American results. Here is how the U.S. has fared in all its games since the 2016 Olympics, depending on the caliber of opposition:

USWNT Since 2016 Olympics

Opponent Quality Record Average Goals Scored Average Goals Allowed
Opponent Quality Record Average Goals Scored Average Goals Allowed
FIFA Top 10 9-3-4 1.56 1.13
Outside Top 10 30-0-0 4.23 0.33

Against any team outside the upper crust of competitive women’s soccer, the U.S. might as well be embarrassing a JV squad. Against fellow elites, though, the competition is remarkably even. The talented attack notably sputters against the latter group. Ten times in 16 games against top-10 opponents, the U.S. failed to score more than one goal. That happened just five times in 30 games against weaker opposition.

If that pattern persists over the next month, the U.S. will be in for an easy path to the knockout rounds—but will then face a much stouter challenge as the tournament progresses.

The United States’ Opponents

The U.S. received a generally friendly draw for the group stage. The first opponent is Thailand, ranked 34th by FIFA and the third-worst team in the tournament by FiveThirtyEight; the last meeting between the two countries produced a 9-0 drubbing in September 2016. Second is Chile, ranked 39th and the second-worst by FiveThirtyEight, whom the U.S. beat 3-0 and 4-0 in consecutive friendlies toward the end of last summer.

The final group match against Sweden (FIFA’s no. 9) poses a trickier obstacle; the Swedes upset the U.S. in a group stage game in 2011, drew a rematch in 2015, and then eliminated the Americans in the 2016 Olympic quarterfinals via penalty kicks. But because the first two opponents look so overmatched, if the U.S. enters the final group game still needing points to qualify for the knockout rounds, something will have gone terribly and unpredictably wrong already.

The larger scheduling problem for the U.S. comes later. If the Americans win their group, and if France does the same, the two powers would be slated to meet in the quarterfinals. Three matches against France since the 2016 Olympics have produced two French wins and one draw. And if all groups hew to chalk and all the favorites win, the Americans could have to navigate something like a France–England–Germany succession in the last three rounds. Those are the top three teams in the world, other than the U.S. The Americans might be favorites to win again, but it certainly won’t be an easy job.

Top Five Arbitrarily Ranked Games of the Group Stage

If you don’t have the time to devote to every game in the first round, these are the most scintillating pairings of top teams before the knockout stage begins.

5. Canada vs. the Netherlands; Thursday, June 20 at noon E.T.
4. Germany vs. Spain; Wednesday, June 12 at noon E.T.
3. Australia vs. Brazil; Thursday, June 13 at noon E.T.
2. U.S. vs. Sweden; Thursday, June 20 at 3 p.m. E.T.
1. England vs. Japan; Wednesday, June 19 at 3 p.m. E.T.

The Non-American Contenders

France (no. 4 by FIFA) leads this list, both because France boasts a top-tier roster and because it has home-country advantage. The French team has never finished better than fourth at the World Cup and lost in penalty kicks to Germany in 2015’s quarterfinals, but it’s been on the verge of breaking through for years. Several key attackers of recent French vintage have aged out of the team, shifting the squad’s focus from free-flowing attack to more pragmatic balance, but forward Eugénie Le Sommer might provide enough goal-scoring all by herself to propel the French to victory. France’s roster features much of the spine of Lyon, the four-time-defending Champions League winners, which means the group is both extraordinarily skilled and familiar with playing together.

France’s hosting duties should help as well, as the country attempts to become the first to ever hold both the men’s and women’s World Cup trophies simultaneously. A study in Soccernomics found that in men’s international soccer, home-field advantage is worth about two-thirds of a goal per game, and France’s host job means that other countries must tread unfamiliar ground. Over the past three years, for instance, the U.S. has played seven games off American soil. They scored just a single goal apiece in each of those games—compared to an average of 3.72 goals per game at home in that span.

Beyond France, some traditional powers enter the tournament looking more vulnerable than they have in the past. Brazil (FIFA’s no. 10) has somehow lost nine games in a row, putting them in such atrocious form that even a tournament version of star forward Marta probably can’t save the squad. Japan (no. 7) seems caught a bit between generations and must depend on breakouts from young players, while Canada’s (no. 5) most realistic hope in this tournament might be for totemic striker Christine Sinclair to set the all-time international goals record; she needs four more to pass Abby Wambach for the lead.

Germany (no. 2) is a leading contender, as always, after winning 2016 Olympic gold and sailing through qualification; the Germans haven’t lost a match in more than a year. England (no. 3) aims to build off a nation-best third-place finish in 2015 (which was marred by a game-losing own goal in stoppage time in the semifinal), though they’ve played inconsistently of late, mixing impressive victories and lethargic results with seemingly no pattern. With star forward Sam Kerr, Australia (no. 6) is also a contender if everything goes right, as the Matildas bring to France both a dynamic offense and a leaky defense. (See: the team’s rollicking 5-3 loss to the U.S. in a tune-up this spring.) Watch Australia’s games if goals are the top priority.

Outside that ring of traditional powers, the best dark horse looks like the Netherlands (no. 8), which won the 2017 European title on home soil, then advanced through several rounds of continental qualification to qualify for the World Cup. Spain (no. 13), Italy (no. 15), and New Zealand (no. 19) could all make noise as well—but even as the world’s talent grows, it’s still likely that by the final rounds, this tournament will be dominated by the usual suspects.

Of course, that thought might have been a logical prediction last summer too, when Croatia stunned a succession of teams en route to the men’s final. France still won, as France might still win this summer, but in a single game of soccer, no result is ever too far outside the realm of possibility.

Except if the United States loses to Thailand. If the U.S. drops its first game, something really strange must be afoot.