Even before the World Cup draw, we knew that the U.S. women’s national team was a near certainty to get out of its group. Saturday’s draw in Paris only confirmed that notion, with Jill Ellis’ side given a spot in cushy Group F alongside Sweden, Thailand and Chile.
Advancement from the group stage, of course, is hardly the goal for the defending World Cup champions and the side currently ranked first in FIFA’s world rankings. Beyond the group lies potential pitfalls for the U.S., who are looking to become just the second team to repeat as Women’s World Cup champions.
Here is Goal’s breakdown of Saturday’s World Cup draw.
It was always going to be Sweden, wasn’t it? It is now five consecutive World Cups that the U.S. has been matched up in the group stage with the Scandinavian nation, who also shockingly knocked the Americans out of the 2016 Olympics in penalties at the quarterfinal stage.
“I'm excited to play Sweden,” U.S. fullback Kelley O’Hara told reporters on Saturday.
“They obviously knocked us out of the 2016 Olympics, so there's going to need to be a little bit of redemption there and I think that's going to be a very good game to evaluate us for the rest of the tournament.”
The U.S. will play Sweden in their final group stage match, which very well could be for first place in the group if both sides win their opening two games. That could provide Ellis with a selection headache, as she’ll potentially be forced to start her top lineup in a match that could have otherwise been an opportunity to rotate her squad.
On the other hand, having their toughest group game last will likely better prepare the U.S. for the step up in competition that the knockout stage will provide.
"I like having Sweden in the third game, I think it allows us to settle into the tournament," Ellis told reporters at the draw in Paris.
A diverse, if cushy Group F draw
The U.S. isn’t expected to have many issues in either of their first two Group F games. Thailand is one of Asia’s top sides but isn't nearly at the level of other regional powers like Japan and Australia. Chile has the potential to surprise, having recently beaten Australia in a friendly, but the U.S. took care of them by an aggregate score of 7-0 in two recent friendlies.
Despite a relatively easy opening pair of games, O’Hara is looking forward to matching up against different styles of play. That diversity could help the U.S. be better prepared to face a variety of different opponents in the knockout stage.
“They are actually a very diverse group, I'd say,” O’Hara said.
“Sweden is very different from Chile who is very different from Thailand. Chile is very technical, a smaller team. Sweden has some taller ladies on their team. I would say that the styles vary drastically. That's kind of exciting.”
Travel will be at a minimum
After the 2015 World Cup took place in Canada, the world’s second largest country by area, the travel in France was always going to look minimal. But the USA’s travel was reduced even further by their draw into Group F, with the team potentially not leaving the north of France until the semifinal stage.
All three group matches for the U.S. are in northern France, with Reims, Paris and Le Havre all within a few hours driving distance. Should the U.S. top their group, they will then have a last-16 match in Paris and then a quarterfinal game in Rennes, also in the country’s north. While other tournament favorites will have to travel from the north to the south of the country during the group stage, the U.S. wouldn’t have to leave their northern enclave until the semifinal and final, both of which are set for Lyon.
That means the U.S. would be in the same region from their group opener on June 11 all the way until they depart for a semifinal in Lyon on June 3.
Danger awaits in the knockout round
The pressure and the competition level will ramp up quickly after the group stage for the U.S. Should they top Group F, a round-of-16 match against the Group E runner-up awaits. That will likely mean a date with regional rival Canada or European champion Netherlands.
Win that game, and a date with Germany, ranked second in the FIFA world rankings, could be on the cards for the quarterfinal. The extremely dangerous Aussies are a potential semifinal opponent, while France or England appear most likely to reach the final from the other side of the bracket.
“The way I approach tournaments is one game at a time, and I think that's how our team has always been and I think that's a very important strategy,” O’Hara said.
“There's no sense in looking towards the final or even worrying about, ‘If we go here or this team wins this or they lose, we'll play this.’
“It's just not worth stressing over. Like I said before, we concentrate on ourselves, focus on what we need to do and I think that's the best approach to it.”
FULL USWNT GROUP STAGE SCHEDULE
|June 11||Thailand||Reims||3 p.m.|
|June 16||Chile||Paris||9 a.m.|
|June 20||Sweden||Le Havre||3 p.m.|