ATLANTA — An audible chuckle rippled from the couch where Kelley O’Hara sat watching the 2019 Women’s World Cup draw on television Saturday afternoon. Sweden had just been selected to join the United States, Thailand and Chile in Group F.
“They obviously knocked us out of the 2016 Olympics, so I think there’s going to need to be a little bit of redemption there,” the United States women’s national team defender said after the draw concluded. “I think that’s going to be a really good game just to evaluate us for the rest of the tournament. They’re obviously our highest-seed team we’ll play in our … first three games, so it’s interesting they’re going to be our last game. But yea, we have a great rivalry.”
The rivalry stretches beyond the Rio Olympics, where Sweden beat the U.S. in penalties during the quarterfinals. This World Cup, which is scheduled June 7-July 7 in France, will be the fifth consecutive time the U.S. and Sweden are in the same group. The U.S. is 3-1-1 against Sweden in the teams’ five previous World Cup meetings.
But O’Hara isn’t concerned with Sweden just yet. She’s focused on what the reigning world champion USWNT needs to accomplish the next six months, which includes 10 friendly matches leading to the team’s World Cup kickoff against Thailand, June 11 in Reims. Chile will follow, July 16 in Paris, and then O’Hara will let her focus shift toward Sweden ahead of their June 20 match in Le Havre.
USWNT coach Jill Ellis joined a conference call with U.S. reporters Saturday afternoon — about 4 p.m. ET, but 10 p.m. in Paris, where Ellis was when the 24 qualified nations found out their group placement for the draw at Le Seine Musicale, a music and performing arts center in the city’s suburbs.
Her reaction the draw was mostly positive. The U.S., ranked first in the world, starts the tournament later, so it will have more time to prep; won’t have to travel much with its first three matches all in northern France, so more time to recover; and has a good range of opponents in No. 38 Chile, No. 29 Thailand and then No. 9 Sweden right before the knockout rounds.
“You want to play teams who are going to get you ready for the knockout phase, so I think it’s a good group, and then beyond that … you could speculate left, right and center, but we’ve got to play good teams to win this thing,” Ellis said. “I think with the added depth [we have] and the potential to rotate players, I think it measures up really well. The master stroke here is we’ve got to execute. That’s on us and we’ll be prepared and ready to go.”
Other than Sweden, the U.S. is familiar with Chile, having played the South American country twice earlier this year. The Americans won 3-0 Aug. 31 in Carson, Calif., and 4-0 Sept. 4 in San Jose, Calif. Thailand last played the U.S. in September, 2016, and lost 9-0.
Despite the United States being the defending world champions and top-ranked team in the world entering the tournament, O’Hara was hesitant to call her team “the favorite.”
“I would never place us as, or put ‘favorites’ on us,” O’Hara said. “But we do hold ourselves to a very high standard and expectation, and yeah, we want to win. Who doesn’t want to win a World Cup? And, being the defending champions, I absolutely want to go back-to-back.”
In the words of Ellis, “there is no easy path” to doing that. Canada, England, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands and host France all could wait in future rounds to challenge the United States.
“The gap between the top-ranked team and the lowest in this World Cup is much closer than it ever has been,” O’Hara said. “And in terms of just the level of play, that is attributed to federations investing more time and money in their female programs, which I think is super important. … And I think they’ll be pleasantly surprised to see that the competition is going to be stiff and exciting.”
U.S. 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup Schedule
|June 11||Thailand||Auguste Delaune Stadium; Remis||3 p.m.|
|June 16||Chile||Parc des Princes; Paris||9 a.m.|
|June 20||Sweden||Stade Océane; Le Harve||3 p.m.|
U.S. All-Time Record vs. Group F World Cup Opponents
2019 U.S. Women’s National Team Schedule – COUNTDOWN TO THE CUP