If the Americans are to defend their title at the Women’s World Cup next year in France, they now know their initial steps. On Saturday, the US women’s national team was drawn into Group F against Sweden, Chile and Thailand.
US national team defender Kelley O’Hara, who watched the draw live on television with media in Atlanta, said the Americans didn’t have any opponents they wanted to face or wanted to avoid in the tournament, when starts on 7 June. After all, the Americans drew what was dubbed The Group of Death in 2015 – a group that included Sweden, Australia and Nigeria – but they still went onto win the whole tournament.
“We need to focus on ourselves, do what need what to do and, regardless of who we play, we need to make sure our level is consistent,” she said.
“We have a very diverse group,” O’Hara added of the opponents in Group F. “Sweden is very different from Chile, and is very different from Thailand. Chile is very technical and they’re a smaller team. Sweden has some taller ladies on their team. The styles vary drastically, but that’s kind of exciting.”
At the last Women’s World Cup in 2015, Thailand was one of the debutantes who got hit with some harsh reality. They lost to Norway and Germany by an aggregate score of 8-0 and only just barely beat Ivory Coast, the worst team in the tournament.
There is reason to expect this Thai team should be better than the one in 2015. They finished fourth in the Asian Cup this year, their best finish since 1986. There, they earned a shock draw in the semi-finals to Australia, a favorite at the tournament in France, but lost on penalies. But Thailand hasn’t shown any sustained ability to compete with the world’s best teams and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them to finish bottom of Group F.
The Americans have only faced Thailand once in their history back in September 2016 and it was . The score in France probably won’t be that lopsided, but there’s no reason to expect anything much different than how their 2016 meeting went.
How they qualified: They beat Jordan and the Philippines in the Asian Cup group stage, and then finished in the top five of a six-team knockout stage.
Players to watch: Kanjana Sungngoen, Wilaiporn Boothduang
When and where: 11 June at Stade Auguste-Delaune, Reims
World ranking: 29
The Chilean team is the lowest-ranked team in the group, but they are a team on the rise. They’ve qualified for their first-ever World Cup after finishing as runners-up at this year’s Copa América Femenina, their best finish in the tournament since 1991. In November, they faced Australia twice in friendlies and managed to win, 3-2, against a Matildas side that fielded its best players. The next game in that series went very differently, however, as Australia won 5-0.
The Americans had never faced Chile through the teams’ histories until a pair of friendlies in August and September of this year, and the US won by 7-0 aggregate score. The timing, as it turns out, has given both teams a valuable scouting report.
“We did play Chile this year, which I think is serendipitous for us,” O’Hara said. “It is nice to have some sort of idea of what a team is going to be like.”
How they qualified: Chile drew to Paraguay and Colombia in the group stage of the 2018 Copa America Femenina, but beat Uruguay and Peru to finish second in Group A. They lost to Brazil, tied Colombia, and beat Argentina to finish second in the final stage and qualify outright.
Players to watch: Christiane Endler, Yanara Aedo
When and where: 16 June at Parc des Princes, Paris
World ranking: 38
The other teams in Group F may be a little less familiar than the other foes the USA must face, but Sweden more than makes up for it. The Americans not only have faced Sweden 38 times in the teams’ history, but Sweden was the team that for the worst finish in US women’s national history at a major tournament.
The most memorable part of the USA’s loss to Sweden in 2016 may very well have been the aftermath: goalkeeper Hope Solo said the bunkering Swedes played like “a bunch of cowards” and was kicked off the team for her remarks, never to return. But the Swedish team’s quality shouldn’t be overlooked. Disciplined defensively, deadly on the counter and strong on set pieces, the Swedes have all the right tools to give the Americans trouble yet again.
Sweden will easily be the toughest opponent of the group stage, a tough test before the rigor of the knockout stage begins. Group F isn’t very balanced – the USA and Sweden are far superior to Thailand and Chile – so this match will likely determine who tops Group F and who falls to second for a tougher road through the knockout round.
“I’m excited to play Sweden. They obviously knocked us out of the 2016 Olympics so there’s going to need to be a little bit of redemption there, “ O’Hara said. “That’s going to be a really good game to evaluate us for the rest of the tournament. It’s interesting their going to be our last opponent. We have a great rivalry with Sweden and they’re always a good opponent.”
How they qualified: Sweden dominated Group 4 of the Uefa qualifying tournament with wins over Croatia, Hungary and Ukraine. (A match with Denmark was called off by the Danish federation when the Danish women boycotted their previous game due to a pay dispute. Sweden was awarded a 3-0 win due to the forfeiture.)
Players to watch: Kosovare Asllani, Stina Blackstenius
When and where: 20 June at Stade Océane, Le Havre
World ranking: 9