‘Are you going to crush us?’: USA brush off hype before Vietnam opener | Women’s World Cup 2023

A burst of laughter rang throughout the press conference room at Eden Park on Friday night as a journalist from Vietnam asked United States head coach Vlatko Andonovski what much of the rest of the world is wondering: “Are you going to crush us like you did to Thailand four years ago?”

Andonovski and USA captain Lindsey Horan were the only two who didn’t laugh, although Horan attempted to hold back a smirk. Andonovski composed himself as the laughter petered out.

“We do have a lot of respect for the team and for the coach and we expect nothing less but that they will fight, they will put on a battle and they will make it as hard as possible as us,” Andonovski said.

If there is any feeling that the United States’ 2023 World Cup opener against Vietnam on Saturday could emulate that of their first match in France four years ago, it is not coming from within the team’s camp.

The USA defeated Thailand 13-0 at their 2019 World Cup opener in a historic thrashing that brought the Americans criticism for their continued celebration of goals. Thailand were a team making their senior World Cup debut and clearly overmatched by the USA, who were just beginning their campaign that would end with a fourth World Cup title.

There are easy (and lazy) parallels to draw with Saturday’s match. The USA are, once again, defending champions and among the tournament favorites. Vietnam are another smaller Asian side making their senior World Cup debut with players who mostly do not play in top-tier global leagues.

Four years later, however, the women’s soccer landscape continues to grow stronger, and with it, so do teams at various levels. There are more true World Cup contenders than before. Teams that are typically overmatched are now more capable of competing with favorites now, even if not consistently.

Vietnam lost their final World Cup tune-up game to Spain, 9-0, a game preceded by a 2-0 Vietnam loss to New Zealand. In late June, however, Vietnam held Germany, one of the other World Cup favorites, to a 2-1 victory despite Germany keeping nearly 75% of possession.

“Vietnam is a team that we expect to sit in a low block and those teams are hard to break down,” USA forward Sophia Smith said this week. “So we’ve been working a lot on that. But at the end of the day, the focus is on ourselves and the game that we want to play, the style that we know how to play, regardless of who it is that we are playing.”

Most of the outside world expects a blowout like four years ago against Thailand. The marquee match of the group stage comes next week, when the USA and the Netherlands meet in a rematch of the 2019 World Cup final that will likely decide the group winner (and, crucially, what is expected to be a friendlier path in the knockout stage.

“Everyone’s always asking us questions about the Netherlands and Portugal,” USA defender Crystal Dunn said Thursday, “and I’m like, we have Vietnam. We’ve got to get through this game before we even consider talking about the second game.”

Saturday’s match at Eden Park could be a good way for the United States to ease into the tournament. The Americans have been ravaged by major injuries over the past year, most recently to captain Becky Sauerbrunn. Her absence from this tournament will force the USA to utilize a center-back pairing that largely has not played together, no matter the combination.

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Andonovski said that Julie Ertz – who could be a solution in the position – is “100%” despite missing the 9 July sendoff match against Wales but starting No 10 Rose Lavelle will have to build minutes throughout the tournament. Megan Rapinoe, who will be in a reserve role this tournament on the wing, will also have to build her minutes gradually.

Saturday, then, is about the result first and foremost. “But also,” Andonovski said, “we do want to see these players connect well, because the lineup that we have, or the players that are going to be on the field, haven’t been on the field together for a long time. It’s different than having them on the field in training and it’s different than being on the field and having game minutes together. It would be nice to see some of the things that we’ve worked on displayed on the field and getting better as the tournament goes on.”

Andonovski has been asked ad nauseum about the cliché that the world is catching up, and he has frequently rejected the premise. The world already caught up, he has said previously, and the USA are still fighting to maintain their perch as they begin a quest for an unprecedented third straight title.

Horan has seen that change, too.

“Teams are getting better, there’s more investments,” she said. “They’re getting closer and closer to the US. This is what is supposed to happen. We want such a competitive World Cup, we want all these teams to give us their best, give us a competitive game. You’ve seen the first matches of the World Cup and they are not easy games. They might be teams that before you were like, this is going to be six, seven-zero. That’s not how it is anymore.”