US women’s national soccer team begins the road to France

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After the jubilation of hoisting its third World Cup trophy in 2015 to the despair of making its earliest-ever exit in the 2016 Summer Olympics, it’s been business as usual for the United States women’s national soccer team, or USWNT.

The Yanks are currently on a 21-game unbeaten run in their alleged two-year “rebuilding” period that has been littered with squad rotation and lengthy injuries. Their depth of talent, however, is still amongst the best in the world.

With a squad that is as menacing as it is skillful, the USWNT enter Thursday’s Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football Women’s Championship group stage match against Mexico (7:30 p.m. ET on FS1) with everything to lose. They will have to compete against a host of nations and earn third place or higher to qualify for next year’s World Cup in France.

The road to repeat championships, as well as a third-straight appearance in the final, is a daunting task for head coach Jill Ellis and her side.

“What we’ve done the past two years is great, and I think it’s just what the team needed,” said midfielder Lindsey Horan in an interview with US Soccer. “Jill saw a lot new players, and we had a lot of moving pieces to change things up a bit so she could be sure of what she wanted and what this team needed. … Now, we’re coming together and really putting every single piece together.”

The usual suspects – superstar Alex Morgan, former Ballon D’Or winner Carli Lloyd, Megan Rapinoe, Becky Sauerbrunn and Julie Ertz – will accompany the likes of Horan, 2018 National Women’s Soccer League MVP, and 20-year-old rising star Mallory Pugh in attack.

Lloyd will look to play a crucial yet altered role as she seeks to compete in her final World Cup at age 36. After an unproductive first year with Sky Blue FC in the National Women’s Soccer League, the 2015 World Cup hero will warrant support from Morgan, Rapinoe and forward Christen Press, who are firing on all cylinders for both club and country.

Their opponents in Mexico have won nine of their last 13 games. Their only losses have come against the U.S. and France in that period, exposing their vulnerability in defense against quality opposition.

The USWNT has only lost once to Las Tri in its history while outscoring its southern neighbors with a 27-1 all-time World Cup qualifying record. They have never lost a qualifying match on home soil, nearly guaranteeing positive results from their two subsequent group stage matches against Panama and Trinidad and Tobago.

It’s also likely that Canada will be the red, white and blue’s biggest threat if they meet in the knockout rounds of this tournament. Currently ranked fifth in the world, the Canucks will look to snatch their third Women’s Championship in hopes of eventually winning their first World Cup.

Expect the USWNT to continue experimenting with formations and personnel as Ellis narrows the list of her first-choice starting 11. After years of friendlies and meaningless tournaments, the USWNT is ready to remind the world who’s on top.

“These games are the best,” Rapinoe told US Soccer. “They mean something. The friendlies are great, but this is what it’s all about, taking care of business here and getting to France. It also adds a little bit of pressure, which is always fun.”

Spencer Golanka writes for Bear Bytes, the Daily Californian’s sports blog. Contact him at [email protected].