PARIS — The U.S. women’s national team is the favorite to win the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup, but the Americans know they have little room for error.
This will be the largest and most competitive Women’s World Cup ever in terms of competition, prize money, marketing, sponsorships and projected attendance. And attention is on the No. 1 ranked USWNT, which will play for a second consecutive World Cup title and a fourth overall, having also won in 1991, 1999 and 2015.
“Going into 2015, I said, ‘This will be the hardest World Cup to win — it’s more teams, more countries,'” U.S. coach Jill Ellis said during a Wednesday press conference at Tottenham Hotspur Training Centre in North London. “And now four years on, I’m going to say the same thing: This will be the hardest World Cup.”
The Women’s World Cup begins Friday when host France plays South Korea at Le Parc des Princes stadium in Paris.
The opening match is scheduled to kick off at 3 p.m. ET and will air on FS1.
A total of 24 teams, drawn into six groups of four, are in the eighth edition of the tournament. Teams in a group play each other once, and the two teams with the most points in each group automatically advance to the knockout phase. The top four third-place finishers also will advance. The World Cup final will be played July 7 in Lyon.
The USWNT arrive in France on Friday, following a week-long training camp in England and begins training Saturday in Reims leading to its opening Group F match Tuesday at 3 p.m. against Thailand. Fox will broadcast all U.S. group-stage games.
Women’s soccer has seen unprecedented growth since the last World Cup, domestically and internationally, and multiple countries pose a threat to the Americans’ potential repeat.
One of those threats is in the same group — Sweden, the team that knocked the U.S. out of the 2016 Olympics in the quarterfinals and gave other teams a defensive roadmap to beat the defending World Cup champs. The U.S. and Sweden will likely battle for the top two spots in Group F, which also includes Chile and Thailand.
“For me, 2016 was really big for this team because we bowed out really early, earlier than we ever had in a major tournament,” U.S. star striker Alex Morgan said of the early Olympic exit during a Thursday press conference in London. “So, I definitely look … upon that for motivation and encouragement because I never want to feel the way that I felt after that tournament.
“This team just prides itself on that No. 1 ranking and on the mentality that we put forward and the fact that we have, like, really been pioneers in the women’s game. So, when you think about that, you think about us setting high expectations for ourselves, our fans setting high expectations, the history of this program. … We’re going to continue to believe we’re gonna come up on top. That’s instilled in us from the ’99ers and the past players.”
They will need to get past France to do that. The host country, ranked fourth in the world, is considered by many the top title challenger heading into the tournament. In addition to France’s home-field advantage, it is 2-0-1 in its last three matches against the U.S. France’s domestic league also has grown much stronger in recent years, and the national team is led by Eugénie Le Sommer, 30, who has 159 international appearances and just won her sixth Champions League title with Olympique Lyonnais — the team Morgan played with during the 2016-17 season.
If France did win it all, the country would be the first to hold both the men’s and women’s World Cup titles at the same time.
Other top contenders include England, which beat the U.S. earlier this year to win the SheBelieves Cup; Germany; Japan; and the Netherlands. Australia will be interesting to watch as well since it has more National Women’s Soccer League players than any other country aside from the United States. And Brazil features reigning FIFA player of the year Marta.
But the U.S. attack leads the world, threatening with veteran stars Alex Morgan, Tobin Heath and Megan Rapinoe, among others. But there were question marks on defense during friendlies leading to the World Cup and there is a new starting goalkeeper in Alyssa Naeher, who will try to live up to the legacy set by former keepers Hope Solo and Briana Scurry.
“I think this World Cup is going to be really exciting and I think there’s going to be a lot of team that might be considered dark horses and do really well,” U.S. veteran Kelley O’Hara said. “I think that’s what’s great about the women’s game: the gap between the top and the bottom has really just continues to close over the years and this is the tightest that it’s ever been. At any point, any team could win.”