Saturday will be the beginning of a weird phenomena for casual sports fans. They will unironically hear the words “World Cup favorites” and “team USA” in the same sentence. That’s because June 6 marks the beginning of the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup, and with it the U.S. Women’s National Team’s month-long journey back to the top of the world of women’s soccer.
The U.S. team enters the World Cup as both the gambling favorite and the favorite of the analytics crowd. When looking over the roster, it’s not too hard to see why. The Americans have some of the best soccer players in the world on their team, led by Cal alumna and forward Alex Morgan. She is one of the most decorated players in the history of the program and left Cal with 45 goals — good for third in team history.
Morgan will be joined at the front by Sydney Leroux and by Abby Wambach, one of the most accomplished players in U.S. history, who could be playing in her last World Cup at the age of 35. Central midfielder Carli Lloyd figures to add even more offensive firepower to the U.S. team: She was the team’s leading goal scorer in international play in 2014 with 15 goals. Goalkeeper Hope Solo will be charged with cleaning up any potential mishaps on the defensive half of the pitch. She is widely renowned as one of the world’s best between the posts, and she won the Golden Glove in the 2011 edition of the World Cup. The defense in front of her, which helped keep their Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football, or CONCACAF, opponents scoreless in World Cup qualification matches, comes in with the sort of talent and attention to detail that will not require Solo to worry very much.
For this team, almost every road leads back to that last World Cup. In 2011, the USWNT took the country by storm. Armed with a likable team that seemed to have a flair for the dramatic, the USWNT sparked a flame under the nation’s passion for women’s soccer, and the team stepped to the front of public consciousness. As the team trekked toward the finals in 2011, it seemed not only like it was the most talented team in the world but that it also had destiny on its side. And then, in the final, all of that seemed to be thrown out the window. The Americans faced a scrappy, underdog Japanese team. The Japanese dragged the game to penalty kicks, where they beat the United States, shocking much of the soccer world.
Now, the USWNT will fight for retribution. Fourteen of the 23 players on the 2015 roster, including most of the players who will likely play big roles, were on that second-place team. The 2011 loss inevitably comes up in just about every pre-World Cup interview in which the players participate. The team’s passion for making up for that loss ensures that it will be fighting tooth and nail to bring the title of champion back where — in the team’s eyes — it belongs.
And the team will need to be fighting early, as the Unites States’ Group D figures to be the group of death in this tournament. The United States will be joined by top-10 teams Sweden and Australia, as well as Nigeria, the best team on the African continent.
Should the USWNT get past this group, as it is expected to do, it will encounter the teams thought to be its biggest challengers for the title. These competitors are led by Germany, which is ranked No. 1 in the world and is a popular pick to top the Unites States. But the Unites States is still considered the favorite largely because the World Cup is being played close to American soil — in Canada. Team USA may also need to get past fourth-ranked Japan again — a game the Americans will surely be looking forward to. While getting past all of these teams won’t be easy, the USWNT is better than any other team when it plays its best game.
To bring home its first title since 1999, the Unites States can take no breaks. It needs to be on that level for the whole tournament.
If it is, the rest of the world could find itself playing for second place.