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USWNT vs South Africa preview: World Cup title defense begins now

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — In one month’s time, the U.S. Women’s National Team will kick off its defense of its FIFA Women’s World Cup title when it begins group stage play against Thailand in Reims, France. The U.S. will be seeking to win its fourth World Cup overall, and the players expect nothing less than bringing the trophy home.

The campaign began well over a year ago, as head coach Jill Ellis brought in players from a large pool of candidates to make the final roster. She named her 23 player squad for the tournament earlier this month. Now, fully assembled, with the competition to make the roster completed, the next stage of preparations can begin.

The U.S. will play three tune-up matches stateside before leaving for France ahead of its June 11 tournament opener. The first of these Send-Off Series games is against South Africa, another World Cup hopeful, at Levi’s Stadium on Mother’s Day afternoon. The opponent provides an ideal test for the team as its World Cup camp kicks into high gear.

“Yeah, it is a good opponent for us,” forward Christen Press shared this week. “Last time when we played South Africa before the World Cup, it was very difficult for us, and I think that was good. There’s an element of nerves that comes in these three games, and the expectation is, of course, we will have a really solid performance and have a really good result against a team like South Africa, but with the added nerves, it acts as kind of an equalizer, and so it gives the team a good opportunity to work through that.”

The U.S. will play New Zealand and Mexico in its other two games in the pre-tournament series, with the goal in all three friendlies to build cohesiveness in the squad and work out any remaining kinks in the tactical system. Ellis already has a plan in place for which players she expect will be starting in World Cup group stage, and Sunday’s match provides a great opportunity to establish a winning rhythm.

“It’s a typical training camp heading into the World Cup,” defender Kelley O’Hara said. “We’re, obviously, preparing for South Africa, but our main focus is working on ourselves, what we need to tighten up in preparation for the tournament, and so we’re ready for that.”

Ellis will rely mainly on her veteran players in France, but plenty of newcomers on the roster are sure to make an impact in the team’s title quest. Advancing from the group stage, which starts against Thailand and includes matches against tougher opponents in Chile and Sweden, cannot be taken for granted. And passage into the Knockout round will only bring stiffer competition for the defending champs, who, according to some odds makers, are the not the favorites in France.

“Absolutely,” O’Hara said without hesitation. “Every four years the competition gets stiffer and stiffer because that gap closes, so I think there will be a lot of teams that will surprise some people, and that’s what makes the World Cup exciting.”

“This will be the most competitive World Cup we’ve ever had,” Press added. “We say that every year because it is a testament to how much women’s soccer is growing and developing globally. The resources other federations are putting into their teams and the opportunities women have to be world-class soccer players and athletes has tremendously grown. And so now when we go to the World Cup, it will be more and more challenging.”

While Press is likely to be the back-up to Alex Morgan at forward, O’Hara is the current first-choice starter at right back for the U.S. She had ankle surgery last Fall, and then suffered a slight setback earlier this year, but her goal has been to be strong enough for the Thailand game. She received some minutes with her NWSL club team Utah Royals FC in recent weeks, and ahead of the Send-Off Series declared that her progress is on track.

“I’m excited for Sunday and the last two send-off games in the U.S.,” O’Hara said, “and then it will be full go when we are in France.”

This will be O’Hara’s third World Cup, while Press is heading to her second. Both veterans, now 30, plan to take nothing for granted this time around, and as two of many leaders within the squad, they look forward to the bonding the group is aiming to accomplish in the weeks leading up the start of the tournament.

“Our group has been together for a while, so there’s a great relationship between the players that have not been to a World Cup before and the players that are going to their third and fourth World Cup on our team,” Press said. “I think that’s been fantastic. I think the key for our group is to always focus on ourselves, and to get out of these games what we need to be prepared in June.”

Sunday’s game against South Africa won’t be the first time the USWNT has played on Mother’s Day in the Bay Area. Back in 2015, the team beat Ireland at Avaya Stadium 3-0 in the run up to the World Cup in Canada. Press started that game and O’Hara came on as a substitute. Both will hope to make a repeat performance at Levi’s Stadium as the U.S. look to repeat another magical World Cup run.

Match Information:

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.
Broadcast: Fox

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