May 19, 2024
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A new generation of USA World Cup champions trying to keep the golden era alive | USA women’s soccer team

TIt’s not the US women’s team, you think. Yes, the United States of America is chasing an unprecedented third consecutive World Cup title. Yes, the US is still ranked No. 1 in the world by Fifa. And yes, a goal on their collective back is one of the perennial favorites at any major tournament. Which players won in 2019? They are largely absent.

Only nine of the 23 named in the USA’s World Cup squad were part of the victory four years ago, and only five of them also took part in the 2015 tournament. The news of captain Becky Sauerbrunn’s leg injury, which will keep her out of the 38-year-old captain’s fourth World Cup, only highlights the dramatic turnover that has played out over the past 18 months. If the United States is going to “three”, they will do so with a much younger and less experienced group.

“I don’t want us to feel like we have something to lose; we just have to touch something,” Sauerbrunn said before she got hurt. “I don’t want us to feel like we are defending champions. We’re really attacking this new one.”

Four years ago the United States was clearly and undeniable. They peaked at the perfect moment for a tournament that came at the wrong time for talented teams like Spain and Australia. The United States were the only non-European team in the last eight and four consecutive European opponents were chosen in the knockout stages to claim the title. This time, however, the squad is filled with questions and potentially dangerous solutions.

Head coach Vlatko Andonovski’s plans have been thwarted every time by injuries. At the start of the squad overhaul in early 2022, striker Catarina Macario was set as the focal point of the attack. The only question was whether she would be better as a center forward or the No. 10. Macario tore his anterior cruciate ligament last spring and has yet to return to the field.

Sam Mewis, a starting midfielder in 2019 and a substitute for Manchester City soon after, has not played for over a year due to a knee injury. Christen Press, the electric forward who scored a vital goal in a surprise semi-final opener against England four years ago, has not fully recovered from a torn ACL.

Then came the more recent blows: Sauerbrunn suffered an injury and Mallory Swanson suffered a torn patella tendon in a friendly against Ireland in April. Swanson scored seven goals in the first six games of the year for the United States, sometimes pulling the team through moments of struggle.

‘We’re devastated: Andonovski admits USA will miss injured Sauerbrunn at Women’s World Cup – video

“It can’t be said enough how big the loss of Becky Sauerbrunn was, because it was a young and inexperienced group. You need leaders and Becky is that,” former US international Heather O’Reilly tells the Guardian.

Certainly, there are familiar names – Alex Morgan, winner of the Golden Ball 2019 Megan Rapinoe, and defender Kelley O’Hara (another player limited by injuries this spring) back for their fourth World Cup. Rose Lavelle is now better and more established in midfield after breaking out at the 2019 World Cup, despite spending almost three months on the sidelines with a knee injury this spring.

Team USA since 2007.

Many of the squad, however, have far less experience on the international stage. Midfielder Savannah DeMelo is only the third player in US history to make a World Cup squad before her first cap. 18-year-old Alyssa Thompson, who effectively replaces Swanson’s, is the second youngest player to be selected by the United States for the World Cup.

Many participants will play a significant role in the World Cup for the first time. Sophia Smith, the 2022 National Women’s Soccer League MVP, will patrol one of the wings alongside Morgan. Then there is centre-back Naomi Girma, the No. 1 pick.

“The benefits of it [inexperience] is that you have a wide eye and no fear,” says O’Reilly, who will be an analyst for Fox at this World Cup. “Throughout my career, I was much more afraid when I was younger because you don’t understand the magnitude of things.”

The injection of youth (and their subsequent lack of experience) is not the only reason for the downfall of US prospects. It was the process of this generational transfer, and the lack of clear results, that prompted questions. Back-to-back defeats to England, Spain and Germany last autumn saw the teams clinch their first hat-trick in 30 years.

The midfield was one of the most worrying aspects of those victories, especially since their opponents were the first elite tests of this new American group.

For 18 months after the Tokyo Olympics, there was speculation about the midfield: how can Julie Ertz be replaced? In the end the obvious answer “she can’t be” led to an ironic ending: she could only replace herself.

Ertz, whose son was born in August 2022, was surprised to announce that he was returning to play in March. She came off the bench in April’s friendly against Ireland and then signed with Angel City for the chance to play in less than a dozen club games before the tournament.

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Squad breakdown

Ertz will almost certainly be the starting defensive midfielder in Australia and New Zealand, but will she be anything close to the 2019 version of herself, arguably the best and most irreplaceable player in the world? Andonovski has made the bet that she can be, despite limited time to test the theory.

There are questions for the US to answer in every department of the team, creating at least the perception of a historical giant on unstable footing. In that regard it should be remembered that eight years ago, doubts swirled around the team during the group stages only for them to click in the quarter-finals and claim the trophy in Canada.

O’Reilly sees parallels to the last major generational shift in the team, one she witnessed first-hand. She made her debut as a teenager in 2002 and was part of the 2004 team that won an Olympic gold. What followed was a drastic and difficult overhaul as the “Fab Five” – Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Kristine Lilly, Brandi Chastain, and Joy Fawcett – began to retire. A new wave of players came in and the 2007 World Cup was, by the US’s standards, a disaster. They lost 4-0 to Brazil in the semi-finals and ended the tournament with clear and public division among the team after a controversial goalkeeper change.

USWNT preparing to try to win third straight Women’s World Cup – video

During that era, however, several young players emerged as the core of a group that won the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, finished second at the 2011 World Cup and won the 2015 edition (before a repeat in 2019). O’Reilly was part of those experiences until 2015.

“This is not the first time this issue has been raised,” she says of the current group’s attitude. “Many people were probably thinking about this new crop of players, which I was there. This is not the first time that these questions have been answered in terms of transfer minutes.”

A relatively favorable draw may help the quest for more global glory. Australia, the strongest host countries, are on the other side of the knockout bracket, as are Brazil, Canada, England, France and Germany.

All-time winners.

If the United States can win their group – which will likely decide the 2019 final with the Netherlands – there is a path to the final that would include a final encounter with Italy or South Africa and, possibly, a game semi-finals. – final date with Sweden. That’s also in line with 2015, when wins against Colombia and China allowed the United States to grow into the tournament.

It would be tempting, however, to pretend that the United States’ World Cup preparations have been anything like those of the past two cycles. Much of the squad has never looked so uncertain before.

If the United States is going to win a fifth World Cup it will be a joke. Talent and potential abound among the group, but the World Cup is all about timing. This one might be too early for a juggernaut still undergoing remodeling.

Details and graphics by Julian Amani.

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