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USWNT embraces challenges, evolves as it chases rare back-to-back World Cup titles

Teams around the world have improved, but so have the American women.

Christen Press, a member of the United States women's national soccer team, speaks to reporters during a media day in New York, Friday, May 24, 2019. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

NEW YORK — Almost four years removed from the United States women’s national team’s World Cup victory in Canada, the team has mostly maintained its dominance. It has kept its No. 1 ranking, won the majority of its matches and heads into this World Cup in France as one of the favorites to win the whole thing.

In some ways, little has changed.

It’s the same mentality of winning,” U.S. forward Christen Press said during the team’s World Cup media day at Twitter’s New York headquarters. “It’s the same expectation of being No. 1 and it’s the same goal of taking home the trophy.”

Yet, as the team aims for rare back-to-back women’s World Cup titles, achieved only by Germany in 2003 and 2007, the team’s task has the added difficulty of the opposition being stronger than ever. The gap between the best and the rest has been shrinking over the last several years in the women’s game, something not lost on the team as it prepares for what is expected to be the most competitive edition of the tournament.

Teams are playing different systems within games,” U.S. coach Jill Ellis said. “One minute, they’re pressing. One minute, they’re sitting off. That’s a fluidity and tactics that I think is reflective of where our game is, and the level of players we have out there. … Teams are going to come up with a lot of different formulas in terms of trying to nullify what we have or break us down.”

Ellis noted that in her long-term preparation for the World Cup, she has kept the increasing quality of the world’s other teams in mind. It meant the U.S. played a competitive set of friendly matches during its two years off from official competition between the 2016 Rio Olympics and the 2018 Concacaf Women’s Championship. It also has led to a change in formation from a 4-4-2 to a 4-3-3, partly influenced by the change in personnel after a host of retirements following the 2015 World Cup.

Press describes the formation change as the team going from a “rigid” style to one that is more “fluid,” but it did come with some “growing pains,” as defender Becky Sauerbrunn put it.

You’re changing from a defensive formation to an attacking formation,” Sauerbrunn said. “You’re trying to get more attacking players on the field. You’re also then now giving up spaces on the field that you don’t give up in a 4-4-2, so you’re learning basically how to defend in a different shape, attack in a different shape. … It takes a little bit of time to meld and mesh, but I think we’ve gotten the hang of it.”

Despite a roster stacked with veterans of World Cups past and an infusion of 11 talented players making their Cup debuts, this edition of the tournament has a different feel for the Americans.

We’re looking at it not as defending,” Sauerbrunn said of the World Cup title. “This team [has a] new identity. It’s revamped, it’s got a very young, energetic majority to it. You have some kind of old guns that have been around for a while, but we see it more as it’s a new team. We’re going to try to create our own legacy.”

The difference between the challenges the U.S. faced in 2015 and 2019 highlights progress athletes around the world have made while fighting for greater resources supporting women’s teams.

Other world programs are getting very, very good, and that’s great because that means they’re getting invested in by their federations and so we want that,” Sauerbrunn said. “We want the global game to grow.”

Though it could be a cause for concern that the competition is improving, it ultimately is far from that for the reigning champions because they feel they have improved along with everyone else.

I think that our team has gotten better,” Press said. “Just the resources that our team has compared to four years ago, they are phenomenally better, and I think that other countries, other federations, are experiencing those same types of changes. I think the fact that it’s going to be the most competitive World Cup ever is amazing and what you hope is that the next World Cup, we’re all saying the same thing.

“As we continue to pour resources into female athletes, female soccer players, you’ll see the game just take off. We really believe that and we play to prove that.”

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