North America’s best return to competitive action Thursday when the Concacaf Women’s Championship begins. The regional championship serves as the final stage of Women’s World Cup qualifying in Concacaf, and will see three sides automatically qualify for next year’s World Cup in France.
The tournament has eight teams split into two groups, with Group A featuring reigning world champion United States, along with Mexico, Panama and Trinidad & Tobago.
The USWNT will begin its World Cup qualifying effort at 7:30 p.m. Thursday against Mexico — who they beat in a two-game series in April — at 7:30 p.m. ET at Sahlen’s Stadium in Cary, N.C. Matches against Panama and Trinidad & Tobago on Oct. 7 and 10, respectively, will follow.
Group B’s Canada, Jamaica, Costa Rica and Cuba start the tournament Friday at H-E-B Park in Edinburg, Texas.
The top two from each group will advance to the semifinals. The two finalists, as well as the winner of the third place match, will head to France. The fourth-place finisher, meanwhile, will face Argentina in a home-and-home playoff for one of the final spots at the World Cup.
The U.S. is favored to win the tournament, though Canada poses perhaps the greatest threat to its title defense. Regardless of how their quests for the title go, both are expected to qualify for the World Cup without much difficulty. Eyes will be on Mexico and Costa Rica — the only other teams in the tournament to have played at a World Cup — to take the other semifinal berths.
For the U.S., the tournament presents a chance to defend its regional title, but also poses a test of the team’s depth. The injury woes of 2018 continue for the world’s top-ranked team, which will be without defender Tierna Davidson (ankle) and midfielder McCall Zerboni (elbow). Both are relative newcomers who Jill Ellis was starting to rely on.
This is the first major tournament for the U.S. since the 2016 Olympic Games, and Ellis will have plenty of choices to make. Lining up in Ellis’s preferred 4-3-3, Abby Dahlkemper will likely step up in Davidson’s absence and partner up with Becky Sauerbrunn at the back, while Crystal Dunn will likely resume duties at left back. Ellis seems to have settled on a midfield three of Julie Ertz, Lindsey Horan and Rose Lavelle. Alex Morgan will likely lead the line up top, with Megan Rapinoe joining her on the left.
The team’s right flank, though, has been an area of uncertainty for several months now. On the forward line, Tobin Heath or Mallory Pugh have started when the other was injured, but now both are fully fit. An even bigger question is at right back, where Ellis has rotated through several players, most recently Portland Thorns’ Emily Sonnett and the Chicago Red Stars’ Casey Short.
Short missed most of 2018 due to injury, leaving Sonnett to play almost all of the minutes available. Now that both are fully fit, Ellis will have to pick a favorite, at least for the time being.