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U.S. women’s soccer team opens World Cup defense with something to prove

U.S. Coach Jill Ellis: "The players are ready, excited, hungry." (Seth Wenig/AP)

REIMS, France — The U.S. women’s national soccer team has waited four years to begin defending its World Cup trophy, a period that included a humbling fall at the Olympics, the departure of some players and the infusion of others, tactical experiments, a strategic reset and a promising buildup.

So what’s a few extra days?

When the 24-team tournament began across France late last week, with the reigning champions as slight favorites and the hosts mounting a threat, the Americans were forced to wait and watch a little longer.

The last teams to play their first group match, the United States and Thailand, will meet Tuesday night.

U.S. vs. Thailand: How to watch and what to follow

“We’re feeling left out,” forward Alex Morgan joked Monday.

Judging from comments in recent days and the general good vibes emanating from U.S. training camps — in multiple U.S. venues, then London and now this lovely city 90 miles northeast of Paris — the Americans are aching to get started.

“When the tournament kicks off and you watch the games, the anticipation for your first match grows,” said Jill Ellis, who will attempt to coach the U.S. team to consecutive World Cup titles for the first time in its illustrious history. “The players are ready, excited, hungry. We feel prepared. The process has been a long one, but the preparation has been excellent.”

The United States is expected to easily clear the first two hurdles — Thailand is ranked 34th, Chile 39th — before encountering stouter resistance in the Group F finale against Sweden.

From there, in a women’s environment that has grown more competitive, the real tests will begin. If the United States and third-ranked France do not stumble along the way, they will collide in the quarterfinals.

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For now, the focus is on the group.

“You can’t get beyond the first game because there are so many twists and turns in this plot, you just have to be ready to ... absorb or examine what is in front of you,” said Ellis, a native of England who graduated from Robinson High in Fairfax County, Va., and William & Mary. “To get too forward ahead could be problematic. There are so many unknowns out there. I feel very confident in our preparation for the unknowns.”

What is known is that this U.S. team retained 12 of 23 players from the 2015 squad that routed Japan, 5-2, in the World Cup final. It is the oldest team in the competition, with an average age of 28.5, and the most experienced: Five players have appeared in 10 or more World Cup matches.

It features a lethal front line (Morgan, Megan Rapinoe and Tobin Heath) and enough depth to field two quality squads. Carli Lloyd, the hat-trick hero of the 2015 final, and rising star Mallory Pugh are options off the bench.

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“It’s been unique and exciting to watch this team grow over the last three years,” retired forward Abby Wambach said. “They are just kind of getting started.”

Morgan alluded to this group seeking to forge its own identity. “Many of the players were not a part of [2015],” she said. “There is just a different feel, and it feels great. This team is ready to go. I feel like we are in peak form and ready to find success for the first time in this tournament as ’19ers.”

The reference to ’19ers comes 20 years after the famed “ ’99ers,” led by Mia Hamm, Michelle Akers and Julie Foudy, won the program’s second world title.

This team will have to navigate a diversifying field of contenders (France and second-ranked Germany), an emerging European class (Netherlands, Spain and Italy) and perennial threats (Canada, Australia, Japan, Sweden and England).

“The gap from top to bottom has continued to close over the years,” defender Kelley O’Hara said, “and this is the tightest it’s ever been.”

Three years ago in Brazil, the Americans were ousted in the Olympic quarterfinals by Sweden — their earliest elimination from a major tournament since the program formed more than 30 years ago. “I definitely look on that as motivation and encouragement,” Morgan said, “because I never want to feel the way I felt after that tournament.”

If there is a vulnerability this year, it’s in the back. In the run-up to the tournament, the Americans conceded a dangerous number of opportunities; they almost dare opponents to commit players forward and leave themselves exposed to a U.S. counter. Ellis also will rely on a goalkeeper (Alyssa Naeher) who has never played in a World Cup or the Olympics.

Any perceived weaknesses are overshadowed by the power of a program that has raised more trophies than any other in women’s soccer annals. Another crown, however, will not come easily.

“This team has always had high pressure, especially in big tournaments,” Morgan said. “That’s for a reason. We have a rich history of success, and that’s one of the reasons we set high expectations for ourselves and people [have] expectations for us.

“This team is united in a way we have never seen it before.”

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