by Steven Goff in Reims, France

The chasm between women’s soccer elite and developing programs has narrowed some in recent years, but in many embarrassing cases, the division remains as wide as oceans, even in a World Cup.

That gap was on full and frightening display Tuesday as the U.S. national team began its quest for a second consecutive trophy with a 13-0 demolition of Thailand — the most lopsided victory in World Cup history for men or women.

Alex Morgan equaled the U.S. record with five goals, and Rose Lavelle and Samantha Mewis scored two apiece as the top-ranked Americans surpassed Germany’s 11-0 rout of Argentina at the 2007 women’s tournament.

Nine is the largest margin in men’s competition, recorded three times.

“It’s how you want to start a tournament,” U.S. Coach Jill Ellis said. “You want to have that feeling. … It is about building momentum. … I’m not saying a big result like this is the be-all, end-all but it does light a little bit of a fire in terms of [players’] confidence.”

But the score also raised questions about whether the three-time champions needed to continue hunting for goals — it was 7-0 early in the second half — and whether the women’s game has evolved enough that teams such as Thailand belong.

Ellis and all the players agreed that, even with a giant lead, they needed to continue to attack.

“To be respectful to opponents is to play hard against opponents,” Ellis said. “I don’t find it my job to harness my players and rein them in because this is what they dreamt about. This is it for them. This is a world championship.”

Unlike other sports, where a coach will pull starters during a blowout, soccer is limited to three substitutions. And it’s against the U.S. team’s nature to slow down or stop playing at a high rate.

“You don’t want to take your foot off the pedal because you want to respect the game and play them as you would play anyone else,” defender Kelley O’Hara said. “It is a tournament. Goal differential matters. You can’t feel bad for scoring as many goals as possible.”

Thailand’s previous meeting with the United States resulted in a 9-0 defeat. And after conceding three in the first half Tuesday, the Thais were overwhelmed in a second half that spun out of control quickly.

The final whistle was the sound of mercy, for the Americans were primed to continue scoring.

Thai Coach Nuengrutai Srathongvian was asked about the margin and whether the Americans exhibited sportsmanship.

“Everybody is following the rules. We have to accept the U.S. team was very good today. We don’t have any excuse.”

Asked about the number of teams welcomed to the World Cup — the tournament expanded to 24 from 16 in 2015 — Morgan said she hopes the gap will continue to narrow through investment and outside pressure.

“For these 24 teams, it’s a great opportunity for women to showcase what they’ve worked their entire lives toward,” she said. “Not every federation gives the same financial effort to their women’s side, and that’s unfortunate.

“My hope is we eventually have 32 teams, but also that encourages FIFA [the sport’s world governing body] to put a little pressure on their respective federations to put more effort into their women’s side.”

With one goal in the first half and four in the second, Morgan became the first U.S. player since Michelle Akers in 1991 to score five in a World Cup match. Several others have netted five in other competitions.

“Alex getting four goals is crazy,” Mewis said.

When she was corrected, Mewis’s eyes widened and she exclaimed: “Five goals? Holy …”

Indeed, it was hard to keep track. Six goals came in the final 20 minutes (including stoppage time, when substitute Carli Lloyd scored).

“Goals matter” in a tournament that uses scoring margin and total goals as a tiebreaker, Lloyd said. “We’ve got to keep that throttle down.”

This match never figured to be competitive, what with the United States seeking its fourth championship and the Thais playing their fourth World Cup match ever.

Once the Americans found their groove — it didn’t take long — they were relentless and ruthless before 18,591 at Stade Auguste-Delaune.

A 3-0 halftime lead turned into a seven-goal margin nine minutes into the second half. Lindsey Horan, Megan Rapinoe, Mallory Pugh and Lloyd also scored for the United States, which has won seven consecutive matches, the past five without conceding a goal.

Morgan’s third goal, a 17-yard shot after using clever footwork in tight space, exceeded the previous U.S. team scoring mark in a World Cup of 7-0 against Taiwan in the 1991 quarterfinals.

Chile — a first-time entry that gave World Cup regular Sweden fits Tuesday before falling, 2-0 — will brace for the United States on Sunday in Paris. A U.S. victory would secure passage to the round of 16.

Not that that’s been in any doubt.

“It is about mentality and it is about confidence, so getting off on the right foot is important,” Ellis said. “The reality is we’ve got more to do.”

Live in-game highlights

By Jacob Bogage in Washington

90 + 2 Goal, USA

It’s a baker’s dozen. Veteran Carli Lloyd, hero of the 2015 final, scores to cap it off a performance that is nothing short of incredible.

87′ Goal, USA

Alex Morgan’s fifth goal of the match has put the Americans in the lead for the all-time records for both goals and margin of victory in a World Cup match. The previous mark was Germany 11, Argentina 0 in 2007. Nine goals in a half are also a World Cup record.

84′ Goal, USA

Turns out they didn’t want to stop scoring. Mallory Pugh, who subbed in a few minutes ago, got into the box all alone for a layup. The 11th goal matches the World Cup record for largest margin of victory. And there’s still time left to set a record.

80′ Goal, USA

They can stop scoring now — if they want. Alex Morgan doesn’t need to prove anything to anyone, unless she really wants the Golden Boot (awarded to the tournament’s top goal scorer). She’s got four of the U.S.'s 10 goals.

78′ Goal, USA

Megan Rapinoe made an almost 70-yard run to catch the Thai defense off guard in transition.

74′ Goal, USA

A cheeky move by Alex Morgan gave the forward a hat trick, and the U.S. a program record for goals scored in a World Cup match. The margin is now eight (8!), and there’s still 15 minutes of game time.

68′ Substitution, USA

Mallory Pugh, another offensive player, replaces center back Julie Ertz. Seems like the Americans want to keep scoring. It’s the third time in a World Cup that the team has scored seven goals.

56′ Goal, USA

And then they scored again. It was Lavelle. They lead by 7. And Lavelle will sub out for Carli Lloyd. Tobin Heath will also make way for Christen Press. Whew!

54′ Goal, USA

This is getting hard to keep up with. The USA got the ball back almost immediately after its last goal, and Mewis scored again.

53′ Goal, USA

That was fast. Already, the Americans have two set-piece goals, and already, Alex Morgan has her second. After Rose Lavelle was fouled in the midfield, Tobin Heath flicked in a ball that was headed to Morgan, who tapped the ball into the net off her knee.

50′ Goal, USA

Just when it looked like Thailand’s defense finally had plugged a couple gaps, Samantha Mewis found 10 yards of open space at the top of the 18-yard box, and walloped a shot off the Thai keeper’s hands and into the net.

Halftime: USA 3, Thailand 0

Well, what did you expect? An American team whose strength is in the attack against an overmatched Thai team yielded an utterly predictable first 45 minutes. The U.S. scored three times, and had seemingly a dozen more chances. It controlled the ball 80 percent of the time, completed 322 passes, took six corners and launched 15 shots, including seven on goal.

Alex Morgan already has a score. The American set pieces are crisp. Samantha Mewis, starting in a reconfigured lineup while Becky Sauerbrunn sits out for precautionary reasons, looks comfortable. It would have been difficult to script a better start.

32′ Goal, USA

It’s appearing that you’ll be reading “Goal, USA” a whole bunch of times before the afternoon is through. The U.S. drew a free kick about a yard outside the box, and Tobin Heath took it, sending a low, hard ball into the middle of the box. Lindsey Horan blocked out her defender and plunked it into an open net. USA leads, 3-0.

20′ Goal, USA

They’ve doubled the lead on a sweet drive from Rose Lavelle in the 20th minute. The U.S. is very in charge in every facet of the game. They’ve attempted eight shots, completed 119 passes and have controlled the ball 75 percent of the game, according to FIFA match stats.

12′ Goal, USA

The Americans have dominated since the opening kickoff, and it didn’t take them long to get on the board. In the 12th minute, Kelley O’Hara pushed a ball out in front of her into the Thailand 18-yard box, then chipped a soft cross in front of the goal mouth. Alex Morgan was waiting there unmarked, and her header was unchallenged.

American lineup announced

The Americans will be diminished at the back line. Center back Becky Sauerbrunn is out with a mild quadriceps injury the team said is “totally precautionary.” Up-and-coming midfielder Samantha Mewis joins Tuesday’s starting lineup in midfield, and Julie Ertz shifts to center back.

The question is, will it matter against a Thailand side ranked 34th in the world?

The Outlaws have arrived

American fans have made the trip to France, and are ready for the Yankees to finally get on the pitch.

Members of the U.S. women's national soccer team talk about their fight for gender equality ahead of the Women's World Cup in France. (The Washington Post)

Background reading

“The ’99ers,” as that World Cup champion squad of 20 years ago is known, became the country’s first superstar women’s team — achieving fame, fans and rock-star status previously accorded female champions in individual sports, such as figure skater Dorothy Hamill, heptathlete Jackie Joyner-Kersee and gymnast Mary Lou Retton. Apart from matters of technique and training that are a given among elite athletes, their formula for success could be distilled to the simple equation: One plus one equals three. They were greater than the sum of their parts. (Read more)

Despite the absence of great fanfare in Paris, the Women’s World Cup does seem poised for a breakout moment. Globally, the sport has gained greater acceptance, as seen in attendance figures and general interest. Last month, about 5 million people in France (7.5 percent of the population) watched the roster announcement. And yet this tournament comes at a rebellious time. The defending champion Americans are suing their employer, the U.S. Soccer Federation, claiming gender discrimination. The Australian players’ union, among others, is calling for increases to the prize money, which is dwarfed by the payout given to men’s teams. The world’s best player, Norway’s Ada Hegerberg, is boycotting the tournament over what she says is mistreatment of the women’s program by the country’s soccer leaders. (Read more)

No doubt, the best female soccer players in Australia, Brazil, China, France, Ghana, the United States and other nations will inspire — if that’s what “shine” means. And they will do so wholeheartedly. But inspiring little girls isn’t all the women in the 2019 World Cup will do. They are athletes first. A slogan that reduces the 2019 Women’s World Cup to a Hallmark greeting card sends a message both tired and tin-eared. (Read more)