A Spanish test and an attacking explosion: our writers’ US World Cup predictions | USA women’s football team

USWNT’s key player is …

Rose Lavelle. The team’s creative No 10 hasn’t played a competitive match in three months due to a lingering injury but was selected with the expectation that she’s healthy enough to deal with stingy defensive teams. If she can perform near her usual level, she will unlock the rest of an already potent attack. JK

Lindsey Horan. The only player in the squad not to play Stateside, Horan is coming off a title-winning season in France with Lyon. An excellent midfielder and a proven leader, she will be the driving force as the Americans try for the three-peat. SCM

Alex Morgan. The USWNT usually have experience to burn, but this time around, the forward corps is startlingly callow. Sophia Smith and Trinity Rodman will surely be effective, and there’s always supersub Megan Rapinoe to take 80th-minute set-pieces, but Morgan will need to set the tone and make sure Vlatko Andonovski doesn’t regret omitting Ashley Hatch, the US player with the second-best resume in the No 9 spot. BD

Naomi Girma. She has melded herself into the national team so effortlessly that it would be easy to overlook the huge role the defender is about to play. But with uncertainty in the midfield in front of her, and long-time captain Becky Sauerbrunn out injured, Girma will need to step up in the toughest moments. MS

Unheralded player to watch …

“Unheralded” is a difficult term to use for any United States player, but one name lost among the stars is Emily Fox. Most full-backs like to push high and wide. In contrast, Fox shifts into central midfield to overload the area. She’s also very good defensively and agile enough to get up and down the field frequently. JK

Naomi Girma. Before the last World Cup, the team faced doubts about their lack of depth at the back. But this tournament, they have Girma. The Californian, who was the NWSL’s Rookie of the Year and Defender of the Year last season, may be the breakout star of the entire tournament. SCM

Outside the USWNT, Nigeria’s Asisat Oshoala although maybe “unheralded” is the wrong word for a player who has been nominated for the Ballon d’Or. On the US, where most of the attention goes to the oldest players and prodigies, the player in the middle in more ways than one is midfielder Andi Sullivan, who was once the Next Great Thing but wound up having to wait for this opportunity. BD

Lynn Williams. Somehow, despite a prolific career, this is the 30-year-old’s World Cup debut. And while Williams’ impact is obvious – her defensive pressure, intuition for space, incredible speed – it can be easy to lose track of her in a roster of marquee forwards. But she can make the difference in pivotal moments. MS

USWNT’s biggest weakness …

Breaking down an organized low block. This answer has not changed greatly from previous years. Overmatched opponents often benefit by using a disciplined defensive shape when they come up against the US. The Americans have made progress in how to handle that since the 2016 Olympic debacle, but they still often lack ideas to break down these types of defenses. JK

Themselves. There is a lot of pressure to make history (again). But with key players injured, increasingly competitive opponents, and Andonovski’s job potentially on the line, this tournament will not be a walk in the park for the No 1 ranked team in the world. SCM

The absence of Mallory Swanson. Last year, Swanson’s goal against Germany snapped the team’s three-game losing streak, the first such skid in nearly 30 years. In the team’s only games against top opposition this year, the SheBelieves Cup games against Canada, Japan and Brazil, she scored four of their five goals. BD

Uncertainty. The fitness of key players – including Lavelle and defensive midfield destroyer Julie Ertz – has loomed ominously over preparations, and the US have prepared without knowing for certain what their go-to lineup looks like. MS

USWNT’s biggest strength …

Alex Morgan and Lindsey Horan bring vital experience to the US squad
Alex Morgan and Lindsey Horan bring vital experience to the US squad. Photograph: Karen Ambrose Hickey/SPP/Shutterstock

Depth and firepower in attack. Even with high-profile injuries, Andonovski has forwards who can strike fear into opponents. Smith and Morgan will help lead the line, and Rapinoe is a dangerous set-piece option off the bench. JK

Themselves. Despite the above-mentioned pressure, there is no reason to believe that the USWNT cannot win the tournament; they have proved time and time again why they are the best in the world. And with Rapinoe’s recent retirement announcement, lifting the trophy would be her perfect swan song. SCM

The letters “USA.” Opponents often feel the pressure and make uncharacteristic mistakes against the Americans. To be honest, so do referees – like Michael Jordan in his NBA glory days, the USWNT have the star players who get the calls. And make no mistake – despite all the injuries and a passing of the torch to some less-experienced players, this is a solid team who are justifiably the tournament favorite. BD

Attacking talent. No matter who starts and who subs on in the 60th minute to shatter the tired legs of the opposition, the US run deep with ruthless, dynamic talents capable of conjuring goals out of nothing. Victory may hinge on that ability. MS

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The biggest threat to the US is …

Spain or Sweden. Many assume that the World Cup will play out to script, with the US and Sweden winning their respective groups. If either team slip and finish runners-up in their respective group, however, it could mean meeting in the round of 16. In such a scenario, one heavyweight would be going home way too early. JK

Canada. With the potential to face their neighbors to the north as the tournament progresses, the USWNT may be taken by surprise by an unpredictable Canadian team. Despite a lacklustre performance at the SheBelieves Cup, Canada will be hoping to add the World Cup title next to their Olympic gold medal. And doing so by beating their North American rivals may just give them the extra push that they need. SCM

Any player who has developed in the competitive cauldrons of Europe’s Champions League, England’s Women’s Super League and Germany’s Bundesliga. Competitions that were once top-heavy are now more consistent tests of players’ mettle, and those players are scattered not just on European teams but other squads as well. Woe be to a team like China, who keep most of their players at home, and don’t have ample representation from the European competitions or the NWSL. BD

Spain. While the US lifted their second consecutive World Cup in 2019 on an unbeaten run through the tournament, many forget how tough a test Spain were early on. Many current US players point to that Round of 16 match as the 2019 tournament’s most difficult. Any route to this year’s final could very well include another meeting with Spain in the knockouts. MS

One bold prediction …

Williams stakes a claim to a starting role in the knockout stage. Depth on the forward line is exceptional, but as the games grow more tense, Andonovski will turn to Williams for her two-way play and defensive pressure, and utilize his other wingers off the bench to run at tired opponents. JK

The Netflix film crew following the team around to document their journey prove to be too big a distraction. Having to perform both on and off the pitch may divert attention from focusing on the USWNT’s actual goal. SCM

A sponsor that did absolutely nothing to lean on European broadcasters to pay more for Women’s World Cup rights, which Fifa was unable to sell at the prices it hoped, will make a performative “equal pay” gesture during the event. BD

Smith is the US’s most obvious threat. But with opponents’ focusing on her, goals may need to come from elsewhere. That means Rodman, Williams, the ever-reliable Morgan, or a combination of all the above, as Smith still scores but creates for teammates while teams try to stop her. MS

The USWNT’s campaign will end with …

The United States will win a record third successive World Cup if they repeat the success of the 2019 and 2015 teams.
The United States will win a record third successive World Cup if they repeat the success of the 2019 and 2015 teams. Photograph: Claude Paris/AP

A trip to the final weekend. The US have never finished worse than third at a World Cup, a record that will inevitably end one day (as it did for the Olympics in 2016). This tournament looks as likely a time as ever, but the US will find a way to get through to the semi-finals. There, they could be ousted by Spain or Sweden, two teams that have challenged (and beaten) them in recent years. JK

The Stars and Stripes not hoisting the World Cup, but the rest of the world praising the team as the blueprint for success. Love or hate them, you cannot deny what this team have done for women’s socceron the pitch – and in courtrooms. The team don’t need another piece of hardware to make history; they have already and forever cemented their legacy. SCM

If they win it all, resounding praise for every player on the team, especially the oldest ones. If they don’t, unyielding criticism of and surely the dismissal of Andonovski. That’s the lot of a USWNT coach’s life. Jill Ellis won back-to-back World Cups, thanks in part to some brilliant decisions to paper over the team’s weaknesses, and she was still eyed with suspicion by some US journalists and fans. In their eyes, a loss is almost never the players’ fault. At least, not the popular players’ fault, and most of the players today are popular. BD

The semi-finals. While this team are fully capable of clinching another World Cup title, an expanded tournament with the toughest competition yet will prove a difficult test. A potential meeting with Spain on a cold, rainy night in Auckland could be where the three-peat falls short. MS