SAN JOSE, Calif. — After countless international friendlies and more training camps then the players want to remember, the U.S. Women’s National Team is right where they want to be: brimming with confidence and dedicated to winning this summer’s FIFA Women’s World Cup in France.
Head coach Jill Ellis finally announced her roster of 23 players earlier this month, choosing a team featuring a mixture of veterans and newcomers that will head across the Atlantic in June on its quest to win a second straight World Cup title. The challenge to add another star above the U.S. crest will be daunting, especially as the competition around the world continues to improve, but it’s one everyone on the team embraces.
“We are going to the World Cup to win it, and anything else would be a failure for us,” forward Christen Press said this week. “That’s the DNA of this team. That was the expectation long before I was ever on it and, hopefully, long after I am retired. I think for us it is embracing that, using that as fuel and motivation, and just being excited for what’s to come.”
The USWNT is assembled in the Bay Area to train ahead of its tune-up game against South Africa this Sunday at Levi’s Stadium, and though it is early days in the World Cup preparation camp, the players know one another so well that they have quickly gotten down to business. The team, the coaching staff, and everyone that supports them, kicked off the week with a gathering meant to bring them closer together, focused on the singular goal of winning the World Cup.
“It’s a long journey to make a roster, and the team goes through so many phases and stages and iterations, so it was special for us to come together, this unique group of 23, and celebrate,” Press said. “We also spoke about the new journey that begins when you actually make the roster, so I think it was both fun and there was a little bit of anticipation moving forward because the culture and the sentiment around the team really does change when the roster is set.”
Press, 30, has scored 47 times for the national team and is making her second appearance on a World Cup roster. She is expected to be one of the first players off the bench for Ellis’s side, especially as her speed can disrupt tired defenses. The former Hermann Trophy winner at Stanford is honored to make the squad again, knowing that the stage is set for the team to move forward as one.
“Yeah, I think between the last camp and this camp when the roster was named, it was the change of the phase,” Press said. “Now, in how we train and kind of what we do, the focus is slightly different because there’s not the focus on making sure you individually are making your spot. Now that that’s concluded, it’s just about the team first, and the team tactics.”
Kelley O’Hara, who was named to her third World Cup roster, shares Press’s enthusiasm, but she also recognizes that the competition to make the squad was merely step one in the process of winning another title. A former Hermann Trophy winner herself at Stanford, and a potent goal scorer early in her professional career, O’Hara, 30, has evolved into a world-class defender, and she will play a vital role in the U.S.’s success in France. She also appreciates the camaraderie shown within the team since they’ve assembled together.
“It’s funny, people always think that it’s all rainbows and butterflies all the time with this team, but it’s definitely not always that way because you are fighting for a roster spot,” O’Hara said. “As soon as that roster is named for the final 23 for this World Cup or for any big tournament, that’s when, I feel, the team really comes together and gels and creates that chemistry that you need to win. I’ve seen it, happily, every time in the past, and I’ve already felt it coming into this camp because this is the 23 that is going to carry us through the World Cup, so it is definitely a bit different feeling because this is our group, this is our squad, and these are the people we are going to win the World Cup with.”
O’Hara and Press, Cardinal teammates a decade ago, both play for Utah Royals FC in the NWSL, and the bond they built at Stanford is still strong today. To make the World Cup roster together for a second time is certainly special, and now the two veterans look forward to what they can share with those who will be making their World Cup debuts to help them be ready for the rigors of the tournament.
“I feel like I learn every day how committed and just impressive this group of people are,” O’Hara said. “This team is pretty incredible. We have a lot of people who are returning from the last World Cup, but we have a lot of faces that will be their first World Cup. I feel a lot of the younger girls have stepped up into big roles and are very much prepared to make a big impact on the World’s stage.”
Ellis has spent the early days of the World Cup camp speaking to the players, one at a time and in groups, sharing her vision of what their contributions will be in the preparation for the World Cup and the tournament itself. The tune-up games as part of the send-off series before the team leaves for France, including Sunday’s game against South Africa, won’t be a time for experimenting and finding the right starting eleven. The coach knows what she wants leading up the the first group stage game, June 11 against Thailand.
But the players won’t be complacent in their preparations. O’Hara, for one, expects everyone on the roster to play her role, but she also knows their individual competitive spirits to shine through.
“Yeah, obviously everyone is fighting for a starting spot at all times, so that just is par for the course in this team and with any team for that matter,” O’Hara said. “But when it comes to this team, it is about playing a role in whatever you are asked to do, whether you’re a starter, whether you’re coming off the bench, whether you are getting into it in practice or in training and being that opposition we are trying to prepare for. Everyone plays a role, and at the end of the day, 23 players win a World Cup, so that’s all that really matters.
“It might be 11 people on the field at one time,” O’Hara added, “but we have the whole heart and sole of everyone that’s part of this squad behind us every time we are on the field.”
Who: U.S. Women’s National Team vs. South Africa
When: May 12, 1:30 p.m. Pacific Time
Where: Levi’s Stadium, Santa Clara, CA.