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USWNT finally kicks off World Cup title defense with Thailand match

The U.S. and Thailand play the last of the opening group stage matches Tuesday

United States' Rose Lavelle, right, is congratulated by Alex Morgan and Tobin Heath, left, after scoring during the first half of an international friendly soccer match against New Zealand Thursday, May 16, 2019, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

REIMS, France — The wait is finally over. After four years, the United States’ women’s national team will begin its World Cup title defense. 

“This team is united in a way I’ve never seen it before … and feeling quite left out that we’re the last day,” U.S. striker Alex Morgan said, drawing laughs during a news conference Monday afternoon.

The U.S. and Thailand play the last of the opening group stage matches of the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup, which began four days earlier in Paris. Kickoff is schedule for 3 p.m. ET Tuesday at Stade Auguste-Delaune, which is expected to draw a sellout crowd of more than 21,000.

The Americans are projected to easily get by Thailand in this first Group F test. They are ranked first in the world. Thailand is 34th. They are trying to win a second consecutive World Cup title. Thailand is making its second World Cup appearance.

The only other time the U.S and Thailand played each other was in 2016 and the Americans won 9-0. The U.S. has never lost a World Cup opener.

There’s an air of calm and confidence among U.S. players, who arrived in Reims Friday, trained locally and explored the historic city about an hour northeast of Paris. 

“We feel prepared. The process has been a long one, but I think the players we selected and the preparation has been excellent, and we’re just ready to focus on tomorrow’s match,” Ellis said Monday. 

After Thailand, the U.S. will play No. 39 Chile June 16 in Paris and then No. 9 Sweden June 20 in Le Havre — both expected sellouts as well.

Morgan, Megan Rapinoe and Tobin Heath lead a front line second to none. And Ellis has a fiercely motivated and experienced veteran in Carli Lloyd on the bench. Lloyd was the star of the 2015 World Cup, scoring a hat trick in the final, and is known to come up big in major tournaments. 

Lloyd, 36, also is the oldest player on the oldest roster — average age just over 28.5 — in the World Cup. Tierna Davidson, 20, is the youngest U.S. player.

One perceived weakness is the Americans’ back line. Should it break down, the final line of defense is Alyssa Naeher, who is making her World Cup debut as a starting goalkeeper after previously backing up Hope Solo.

“I’m excited going into the tournament,”  said Naeher, 31. “I feel good. I feel confident, ready to go. My teammates make me feel that every day.”

Morgan, 29, will face a fellow University of California at Berkeley alum in Thailand forward Suchawadee Nildhamrong, 22, better known as Miranda Nild. The two crossed paths in the hallway of the stadium in between their pre-match news conferences. Nild was the Golden Bears’ Offensive Player of the Year as a junior and scored 13 goals in her four years in college. 

“I just met her in the hallway, so it’s already friendly fire. I introduced myself to her. I was the proactive one, so I already have an edge on that,” Morgan said jokingly. “She’s a player that has really shown herself well with the Thai team, and I’m looking forward to it.”

Ellis responds

Former U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo criticized Ellis’ leadership during a World Cup preview interview with the BBC, saying Ellis cracks under pressure and relies on her assistants.

When asked about Solo’s remarks, Ellis responded, “comments are comments.”

She continued, “For me, personally, I feel over the past five years I’ve made a lot of important decisions and I have processes to make those decisions, and I own those processes. At this point, everything and every focus is about this group of players that are here and now. Pundits, out there, that’s part of it. And part of the message is always to make sure that the focus is on the internal part of the game. And that’s where we are.”

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