Every four years they dribble onto the American sports radar and captivate the nation, these strong, confident, athletic, tough-as-nails players of the U.S. Women’s World Cup team.
The quadrennial summer fling will be rekindled on Tuesday, as the defending champion United States plays its World Cup opener at 3 p.m. against Thailand in Reims, France.
U.S. soccer fans have been eagerly anticipating this day after spending last summer feeling like outsiders because the American men failed to earn an invitation to their World Cup in Russia. The U.S. women, by contrast, are No. 1 in the FIFA world rankings and breezed through qualifying, outscoring opponents 26-0.
Since a shocking early exit from the 2016 Olympics, the U.S. women have compiled a 39-3-4 record. Despite the rise of France, Australia, England, Germany, and a handful of other teams, the United States is still the team to beat.
So, go fish that red, white and blue jersey out of your drawer and wear it proudly. Plan a watch party, or head to a local soccer-friendly pub. Make sure your kids watch. Little girls need to see these women, and so do little boys.
“If you come for the queen, you best not miss, and a lot of people are coming for this queen,” FOX analyst Alexi Lalas said of Team USA. “Many will miss, and it will take one strong team to knock them off that perch.”
There are as many as nine strong teams that have legitimate reason to believe they can knock the U.S. off its perch, starting with host France, a highly-skilled group eager to follow in the cleat steps of the French men’s team, which won the 2018 World Cup in Russia and won the 1998 World Cup when it was in France. The French women cruised past South Korea 4-0 in the Cup opener on Friday.
Oh, how Les Bleues would love to see a million jubilant Parisians storming the Champs-Elysees and French fans celebrating in fountains all over the country as they did when the men won in 1998. In 32 years of sports writing, including six men’s World Cups and three women’s, few scenes compare to that sea of partiers on the Champs-Elysees.
“In my opinion, France is the favorite,” said Megan Rapinoe, the outspoken U.S. winger. “And I’m not just saying that. They’re home. I feel like all the pressure is on them.”
Other teams that could go deep are England, Australia, Germany, Canada, Japan, Sweden, Brazil and Netherlands.
U.S. coach Jill Ellis dismisses the notion that her team is defending the world title.
“We will be labeled defending champion, but we’re not defending anything,” she said. “The past is the past. Every year is a new team. We are attacking something. We want to bring home the next World Cup. It is not our mindset to protect. It’s our mindset to attack, to be on the front foot. That’s who we are.”
There is no more lethal attacking trio than Alex Morgan, Tobin Heath and Megan Rapinoe. Morgan is a finisher. Heath’s ball skills are spectacular. Rapinoe is a dynamo. They’re so good their backups are world-class players – 2015 star Carli Lloyd, Mallory Pugh and Christen Press.
The U.S. midfield is also strong with Julie Ertz, Lindsey Horan and Rose Lavelle. Crystal Dunn gets things going from the back, and can make an impact anywhere on the field. The only question is how the relatively unproven back line and new goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher will hold up. It is the first time since 1994 that the woman minding the U.S. net isn’t Briana Scurry or Hope Solo.
It is a foregone conclusion that the U.S. team will advance from the group stage. Thailand is ranked No. 34 and lost 9-0 to the Americans in a friendly in 2016. Chile is ranked even lower, at 39, and lost 3-0 and 4-0 to the U.S. last summer.
The only group game that could prove tricky is Sweden, ranked No. 9. The Swedes beat the U.S. in the first round in 2011, tied in 2015, and knocked out the Americans from the 2016 Olympic quarterfinals on penalty kicks.
If the U.S. team wins the group, it could face France in the quarters. That would be dangerous. The teams have played each other three times in the past few years with two French wins and one tie. And, France will have the home field advantage.
After that, the Americans could be looking at a semifinal against England and a final against Germany. Every game is winnable for the United States, but those knockout rounds won’t be easy.
No matter what happens, these women are worthy of our attention and sponsorship dollars. They are great role models. As the mother of a 19-year-old daughter who played 14 years of soccer, watching the Women’s World Cup takes me right back to countless hours on the sidelines, watching young girls develop grit, confidence, life skills and lifelong friendships while they kicked around that black and white ball.
How wonderful it is to see my daughter and her teammates gather to root for the women of the U.S. national team. Women rooting for women, lifting each other up, as they should.
Alas, the women’s game is in the spotlight only one month every four years, despite the players’ efforts to keep the flame alive. A majority of fans get on a one-name basis with the players, and then forget about them for three years. Mia, Brandi, Julie, Michelle, Briana, and Kristine stole American hearts in 1999. More recently, in 2015, when the U.S. trounced Japan 5-2 in Vancouver to win a third World Cup, it was Alex, Abby, Carli, Hope, Tobin, Megan, and Becky.
That 2015 final match drew 25.4 million U.S. television viewers, and 750 million fans worldwide tuned in over the four weeks.
If life was fair, the summer fling would develop into a long-term relationship, and millions of fans would continue cheering on (and contributing to the salaries of) those players as they showcase their skills in the National Women’s Soccer League with teams such as the Houston Dash, North Carolina Courage, Orlando Pride and Portland Thorns.
But the women’s pro game hasn’t reached that level of popularity. Not even close. Hopefully, that will change some day.
In the meantime, let’s enjoy a month of fantastic soccer. No overpaid, pampered egomaniacs. Very little flopping and diving. Just a bunch of terrific athletes playing a beautiful game in a breathtakingly-beautiful country.