USWNT to kick off World Cup knowing three-peat will be tough

For as long as she can remember, Sophia Smith has dreamt of playing for the U.S. in a World Cup. As a young girl growing up in northern Colorado, she planned for it, she practiced it, she even acted it out in her backyard.

“We played World Cup, and I was always the USA,” she said. “I didn’t fully know that this could be me one day.”

Friday it will be, with Smith and U.S. kicking off what they hope will be a drive to a third consecutive world championship against Vietnam. Only now is that reality beginning to sink in.

“We did a welcome ceremony the other day and the other teams in Auckland were there,” Smith said. “Just kind of seeing the other teams, it was like, ‘OK, it’s really happening.’

“It still feels surreal.”

Surreal is a word the Stanford-educated Smith uses frequently. It’s surreal that she made the World Cup team, she says, surreal that she’s playing alongside women she once idolized and surreal that she’s the leading scorer on the No. 1 team in the world.

But if all those things were unexpected, what’s not surreal are the huge expectations the U.S. carries into the tournament. With 32 teams, 64 games, two host countries in New Zealand and Australia and a prize-money purse of more $150 million, this will be the largest and most lucrative women’s World Cup ever. For the Americans, however, nothing has really changed.

“There’s only one thing in mind: we’re going into this tournament to win,” coach Vlatko Andonovski said. “I don’t think anyone on our team thinks different.”

The U.S. hasn’t lost a World Cup game since the final group-stage match in 2011, when a penalty kick and an own goal gave Sweden a 2-1 win. Overall, the U.S. has lost just four times in 50 World Cup games, the other three coming in the semifinals. If the Americans run the table again in this tournament, it will give them a third consecutive title, something no team of either gender has ever accomplished.

But the challenge has grown more difficult because the World Cup field has not only grown in size, it’s gotten better as well, with nearly a dozen countries — among them Spain, the Netherlands, England, Germany, Canada, Sweden and Australia — all believing they have a shot at the crown.

“There are some teams that have done incredibly well over the last four years, have made a name for themselves to compete for this trophy,” said Alex Morgan, who will be playing in the tournament for the fourth time. “It by far is going to be the most competitive World Cup.”

What proof? Two years ago in the Tokyo Olympics, the U.S. lost to Sweden and Canada and played to draws against Australia and the Netherlands. And last fall the Americans dropped three straight to England, Spain and Germany, their first three-game losing streak since 1993.

“We keep hearing how the competition is getting closer and how it’s getting tougher,” Andonovski added. “It is our responsibility to push this team for the extra 1% to be the best, to stay the best.”

That won’t be easy because the U.S. not only enters this tournament with a huge target on its back, but with a number of questions about its roster as well.

For starters, the team is relatively inexperienced, with 14 players new to the roster since 2019, the largest-ever turnover from one World Cup to another in U.S. history. Even the coach is new, with Andonovski having replaced Jill Ellis 3 ½ years ago.

United States’ Sophia Smith moves the ball to assist Trinity Rodman.

United States’ Sophia Smith moves the ball to assist Trinity Rodman, who then scored in the second half of a women’s World Cup send-off match against Wales in San Jose on July 9.

(Josie Lepe / Associated Press)

Missing to injury is forward Mallory Swanson, the U.S.’s leading scorer the last two years, and captain Becky Sauerbrunn, whose 216 appearances for the national team are the most among active players. In Sauerbrunn’s place the U.S. will use World Cup rookies Naomi Girma and Alana Cook, who have started just eight games together, at center back.

And while midfielders Rose Lavelle and Julie Ertz and forward Megan Rapinoe made the team, their fitness remains questionable since a knee injury has kept Lavelle sidelined since April 8, while Ertz has played just 69 minutes with the national team and 650 overall since the Tokyo Olympics. Rapinoe hasn’t played in six weeks because of a calf injury.

But if that’s the bad news here’s the good: Goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher has given up just five goals in 13 games since coming out of the Olympic semifinal with a hyperextended right knee; Morgan, runner-up for the FIFA world player of the year award in 2022, is playing some of the best soccer of her career; and with Smith, Morgan, Trinity Rodman and Lynn Williams, the U.S. has more firepower up front than any team in the tournament.

“We’re so lucky to have such a deep roster, specifically the front line where we have so much skill and talent,” Smith said. “But at the same time we all want to win and we have that grit, we have that energy.”

However, the spotlight may shine brightest on Smith, who last season became the youngest MVP in NWSL history and, during the next month, could emerge as the latest in a long line of young U.S. players who became household names at the World Cup.

“I definitely feel it,” Smith said of the attention. “I like it. It means people believe in me, but I try not to overthink it. I just need to keep being myself and doing what I’m doing.

“It’s not really about the individual. It’s about, as a team, winning this World Cup.”

The U.S. began its drive to a title four years in France by running up the score in a 13-0 win over Thailand. That could happen again in the opener against Vietnam, a World Cup debutante who lost 9-0 to Spain in its final tournament tune-up. The U.S. then plays the Netherlands, ranked ninth in the world by FIFA, before finishing the group stage against Portugal, another team playing in its first World Cup.

For Smith, it will all seem familiar since she’s been winning World Cups in her backyard since she was a kid.

“I grew up with two big sister who played sports, so everything was a competition,” she said. “I have to win. It makes me sick to lose at anything.

“So, yeah, when it comes to soccer, I just find a way.”