Eyes on the prize: USWNT ignoring legal battles and Solo stick ahead of World Cup opener

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Amid a flurry of storylines on and off the field, the team has zeroed in on Tuesday's opener against Thailand

Distractions come with the territory of being a U.S. women’s national team player.

The USWNT's recent lawsuit demanding equal pay is the latest, but by no means the only non-soccer talking point that has accompanied the team over the years.

Before that there were other battles for equality, the continuing travails of Hope Solo, Megan Rapinoe kneeling during the national anthem to protest racial injustice, player revolts against head coaches, and countless others.

On Tuesday, however, the team must do as it has done so many times over the years and deploy its blinders. The USWNT’s World Cup gets underway with a game against Thailand in Reims, and it hopes to have to keep those blinders on all the way through to the final in Lyon on July 7.

“Of course we have additional things outside this team that people are going to try to distract us with, or things that we have put on hold that we’ll continue to do after the World Cup but for right now this is our sole focus,” U.S. forward Alex Morgan said at a press conference on Monday.

“This team is united in a way that I’ve never seen before and we’re very excited to start the World Cup tomorrow.”

It can be easy to get distracted not only by off-field matters in a World Cup, but with the tournament’s on-field stories happening away from the U.S. camp.

France, the World Cup co-favorites along with the U.S., provided such a distraction on Friday night by laying down a marker in a 4-0 tournament-opening win over South Korea.

With the group stage seen as a mere formality for the USWNT, it would be hard to blame Jill Ellis’s side from looking ahead to a potential showdown with France in the quarterfinal.

Though Ellis admitted her players were more than aware of the hosts’ performance in Paris, she quickly pivoted to the immediate task at hand.

“Of course we watched the game, we have TVs everywhere,” Ellis said of the France match. “The players are obviously participating but it’s just so exciting to be a part of it. We’re also fans of football.

“In terms of France, a great first performance from them. I’ve said this many, many times but right now it’s group stage for us, it’s one game, it’s Thailand and everything is singularly the focus.”

France World Cup 2019

Solo, so often a distraction during her time with the team, proved she can still fill that role admirably away from the group this week, making incendiary comments about Ellis during her role as a pundit for the BBC.

Ellis was offered a chance to respond to the criticism and, as expected, took the high road on Monday.

Instead, Ellis pivoted to the team’s preparation for Thailand, an opening challenger that should, on paper, offer little resistance.

The USWNT has played Thailand once before, winning 9-0 in a 2016 friendly. But Thailand, now playing in its second straight World Cup, has improved since then and has shown the potential to surprise recently.

In the 2018 AFC Women’s Cup, Thailand drew with heavily favored Australia 2-2 over 120 minutes before falling to the Matildas in a penalty shootout.

“That’s impressive in and of itself that now a team has been to back-to-back World Cups and with that comes the experience that you get from that,” Ellis said of Thailand.

“[They have] some talented players, some technical players. I do respect every opponent here because it’s incredibly hard to get here, so the fact that they’re here, they’re competing, they’re ready, we’ll have to be at our very best.”

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For the USWNT, the time to look ahead and focus on issues outside of Tuesday’s game, or outside the soccer field entirely, has ended.

“For right now we really haven’t talked about any of our opponents other than Thailand,” Morgan said.

“I think this team is ready to go, I feel like we’re in peak form and I feel like we’re ready to find success in this tournament.”

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