Even without a few key players, the United States heads into the Women’s World Cup with a formidable group of wily veterans and eager newcomers.
The question is, will it be enough for the team to lift international soccer’s most prestigious trophy again?
The United States has won the last two World Cups and the goal is to three-peat. But American dominance in women’s soccer isn’t assured anymore.
Teams like England and France have caught up, Germany and Sweden remain strong, and then there’s that rival to the north, Canada, which won gold at the Tokyo Olympics.
The growth of women’s soccer globally means greater parity. And that means the United States has had to adapt.
“There’s so many leagues around the world that are paying players more, that are playing more often throughout the season, and that are treating players in a professional way that we’ve been fighting for a long time, so I think that that has a lot to do with it,” star forward Alex Morgan said.
The Americans look far different now that they did four years ago, when they beat the Netherlands 2-0 in the World Cup final and fans in Lyon, France, feted them with chants of “Equal Pay!”
The players did indeed achieve equitable pay with their male counterparts, coming to a historic collective bargaining agreement with U.S. Soccer in 2022. As part of the deal, the men and women on the national teams will split World Cup prize money.
On the field, the team settled for a disappointing bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympics two summers ago. Afterward, U.S. coach Vlatko Andonovski turned his attention to developing young talent.
Among the youngsters is 18-year-old phenom Alyssa Thompson and up-and-comer Trinity Rodman, the 20-year-old daughter of former NBA star Dennis Rodman.
There’s also Sophia Smith, who has made a quick ascent with the national team and with her club, the Portland Thorns of the National Women’s Soccer League. Just 22, she was named NWSL Most Valuable Player and U.S. Soccer’s Player of the Year last year.
Smith was left off the roster for the Tokyo Games. Andonovski said it was a tough conversation when he let her know his decision, but he’s been impressed with how she responded.
“She had to face some adversity, she had to face some tough times. I know I’ve had some tough conversations with her, but from every conversation and every moment she just rose above and was better,” Andonovski said. “Every time it seemed like she had a setback or she had a tough moment, she took it as an opportunity to grow and get better and that’s why she’s where she’s at now. She performs very well. We’re very happy with where she’s at, but I don’t think we’ve seen the best of Sophia Smith.”
Two other young players who were also part of Andonovski’s plans for the future, Catarina Macario and Mallory Swanson, won’t join the team in Australia and New Zealand because of injuries.
Swanson, 25, was the team’s top scorer this year before she injured the patellar tendon in her left knee during an exhibition match against Ireland in early April.
Macario, 23, tore an ACL last year while playing for the French club Lyon. She tried to recover in time — she was even treated in Qatar at Aspetar, one of the world’s leading orthopedic hospitals — but ultimately time ran out on her return.
Arguably the biggest absence for the United States is captain Becky Sauerbrunn, who announced that a right foot injury suffered in April will keep her out of the World Cup.
Sauerbrunn, 38, has played in three World Cups and three Olympics. She is more than just the anchor of the team’s backline: She led the fight for equal pay and has acted as a moral compass, often speaking out on social justice issues.
The United States, which has won four World Cup titles overall, most of any nation, will play in Group E next month, along with Vietnam, the Netherlands and Portugal. The tournament as a whole kicks off July 20, but the U.S. doesn’t play until July 22 in Auckland against Vietnam.
The Americans will play their group stage matches in New Zealand. Should they top the group, they’ll travel to Sydney for the Round of 16.
There is still also a statement to be made: While the team has won its fight for equality at home, now players are advocating for the movement to go global.
“I’m really proud of being on this national team for the last 12-13 years and fighting for not only ourselves, but for the future of this sport, both in the U.S. and globally,” Morgan said. “And as much as we can support other athletes as well in their fight, we will. I think that all of that combined is going to create just an incredibly special World Cup that people will be talking about for a long time.”