The U.S. national team has long dominated women’s soccer, claiming three of seven World Cup titles — including the 2015 edition — since the tournament began in 1991. But none of those championships came back-to-back, as the Americans fell short in the semifinals during both of their previous title defenses. As the 2019 World Cup in France begins Friday, with the U.S. kicking off Tuesday against Thailand, here are five storylines to watch as coach Jill Ellis’ team tries to make American soccer history.
Is the next U.S. generation ready?
Relying too much on proven but past-their-prime players has been the folly of many a defending champ, in both women’s and men’s World Cups. To Ellis’ credit, she has balanced her roster, bringing 12 World Cup veterans and 11 newcomers to France. Of those debutantes, cheeky playmaker Rose Lavelle, do-everything midfielder Lindsey Horan and steady center back Abby Dahlkemper figure to be particularly influential. Also look out for winger Mallory Pugh, 21, who presents a change of pace up front, and utility player Crystal Dunn, who has something to prove after being the last cut from the 2015 squad.
What role will Carli Lloyd play?
The two-time FIFA world player of the year — who you may recall notching a hat trick in the first 16 minutes of the 2015 World Cup final — is still in the mix at age 36. Although Lloyd has lost a step, the longtime midfielder has reinvented herself as a reserve striker. Always a player who thrives on the biggest stages — she scored game-winners in two Olympic gold medal matches — Lloyd is rounding into form right on cue, with five goals over the Americans’ final four tune-up matches. With Lloyd, Pugh and Christen Press, the U.S. has no shortage of lethal options off the bench.
How will the U.S. defense hold up?
Becky Sauerbrunn, regarded as perhaps the world’s finest defender, is still holding things down in the back. But the unit around her has been overhauled. Julie Ertz’s move from defense to midfield means Sauerbrunn has a new center back partner in Dahlkemper. The left back, Dunn, is versatile but more comfortable in the attack. Goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher is facing her first real test, having long bided her time as Hope Solo’s backup. Even Kelley O’Hara, a proven veteran at right back, is something of a question mark after only recently returning from a lingering ankle injury.
Is Jill Ellis up to the challenge as coach?
Ellis pressed the right buttons in 2015, as lineup tweaks and a formation change led the U.S. to the title. But after the coach shepherded the worst U.S. finish in Olympic history — a quarterfinal exit in 2016 — she embarked on a slew of polarizing tactical experiments. Ellis now deploys a 4-3-3 formation, with two advanced midfielders and aggressive outside backs. It’s a look that offers plenty of firepower but also could prove defensively vulnerable. Her decisions to omit defender Casey Short and midfielder McCall Zerboni also could loom large if the U.S. needs to call upon its depth.
Can the U.S. finally go back-to-back?
If the U.S. does repeat as champion, it’ll likely be thanks in no small part to its attacking trio: creative wingers Tobin Heath and Megan Rapinoe, plus ruthlessly efficient striker Alex Morgan (who has 101 goals in 163 international games). How the bracket comes together also will be key. The U.S. should have no problem getting out of a group with Thailand, Chile and Sweden. But considering that a first-place finish would put the U.S. on a quarterfinal collision course with host France, the Americans, strangely enough, could have an easier path if they advance as the group runner-up.