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Three questions for the USWNT as World Cup qualifying kicks off

7:22 AM GMT+8 04/10/2018
USWNT celebration
The defending world champions begin the road to their title defense this week when they kick off the Concacaf Women's Championship

The U.S. women’s national team kicks off World Cup qualifying on Thursday when it takes on Mexico in the opening match of the Concacaf Women’s Championship in Cary, N.C. Following the game against El Tri, Jill Ellis’ side will round out Group A with matches against Panama on Sunday, and Trinidad & Tobago on Oct. 10.

The eight-team CWC will send three teams automatically to next summer’s World Cup: the two semifinal winners, along with the winner of the third-place match. The fourth-placed side will still have a chance to qualify through a two-leg playoff with Argentina next month.

Ahead of the tournament, Goal examines three pressing questions that will be answered in the competition that is set to take place in North Carolina and Texas.

Will the USWNT have any issues qualifying?

Based on past results and the competition’s forgiving format the answer is … probably not. Mexico will be the USA’s toughest opponent in Group A but Ellis’ side has had little trouble against El Tri in recent years, winning their past nine meetings by a combined score of 42-4, and most recently defeating Mexico in two April friendlies by scores of 4-1 and 6-2. The U.S. has less history against Panama and Trinidad & Tobago, but has defeated T&T in all 10 of their matches all time, and dispatched Panama 9-0 in 2002 in the only game between the two nations thus far.

If they finish in the top two of their group, the USA’s margin of error for World Cup qualification is rather large. In order to miss out on the World Cup, the U.S. would have to fall at three consecutive hurdles: the CWC semifinal, the third-place game, and then the two-game playoff against Argentina.

Perhaps, then, the USA's greatest potential danger comes from finishing outside Group A's top two. Imagine a scenario where three teams in the group all defeat the fourth team, and then split the remaining games among themselves. That would leave three countries on six points, with one team out of that trio getting eliminated on goal difference.

Unlikely? Yes. But the U.S. losing one game seems much more plausible than falling short three straight times after getting out of its group.

Still, the U.S. has won 27 of its 28 Concacaf Women’s World Cup qualifying matches all time, outscoring opponents by a mind-boggling total of 158-5. The U.S. men missing the World Cup this year was a big surprise, but should the women follow suit it would be a greater shock by several orders of magnitude.

Will a best XI begin to emerge?

With a spot at the World Cup on the line Ellis will understandably be keen to play her best possible lineup at the CWC, but exactly what that side looks like is an open question on a roster that goes deep at every position. There are a few automatic picks for Ellis: Alyssa Naeher will start in goal, while Becky Sauerbrunn and Abby Dahlkemper will be the center back pairing with Tierna Davidson out injured. Julie Ertz and Lindsey Horan will comprise two players of the midfield trio, while Alex Morgan will start as the No. 9.

That leaves five spots up for grabs, with almost all of the remaining 13 field players on the roster legitimate candidates to fill them. Crystal Dunn and Kelley O’Hara will likely get the first crack at the outside back spots, but there is plenty of depth behind them. Morgan Brian, Sam Mewis and Rose Lavelle all have a shot to emerge as the preferred third starter in midfield. And in the two wide attacking slots on either side of Morgan, it should be quite the battle between Tobin Heath, Christen Press, Mallory Pugh, and Megan Rapinoe.

Is a final date with Canada inevitable?

The U.S. is at the top of the current FIFA rankings while Canada comes in at fifth place. The next highest Concacaf side, Mexico, is all the way down in 24th place. It seems likely then, that the U.S. and Canada, having already qualified for the World Cup by winning their respective semifinal matches, will meet on Oct. 17 in Frisco, Texas for the Concacaf title.

Much like the U.S. is expected to qualify easily through Group A, Canada should have little trouble topping a Group B that also contains Costa Rica, Jamaica and Cuba – though Costa Rica does have the potential to surprise. Because Canada qualified for the 2015 World Cup automatically as the host nation, the U.S. and Canada have not met in a competitive fixture since their epic Olympic semifinal in 2012 – a match the U.S. won 4-3 in extra time en route to a gold medal.

Neutrals will likely be hoping for a rematch in Texas, as two of the world’s top sides will be eager to test themselves in a final competitive fixture before next summer’s World Cup.