Can The USWNT Pull Off An Unprecedented Three-Peat?
by Michael Lewis
Over the next month, the U.S. women’s soccer team will attempt to accomplish a feat that has never been achieved: winning three consecutive World Cups.
The legendary Brazilian men’s team that won in 1958 and 1962 with the great Pelé fell short in 1966. Likewise for Germany's women's squad, champions in 2003 and 2007, which failed to win at home in 2011.
The four-time champion Americans will look to make history in the FIFA Women's World Cup in New Zealand and Australia.
While a three-peat has never been seen at this competition before, those are the expectations in the U.S. locker room. Asked if he would accept anything else than another championship, U.S. head coach Vlatko Andonovski said, “Absolutely not. There's only one thing in mind going into this tournament. Our goal is to win the World Cup. There's no question about it.”
Entering their ninth World Cup, the Americans face several questions on whether they can make history.
Given their past performances, the U.S. should breeze through the group stage. The Americans have never lost in 24 previous opening-round matches (22-0-2). They played China to a 3-3 draw in 1995 and played out a scoreless draw against Sweden in 2015.
The Americans are expected to win Group E. Their tournament starts with World Cup debutant Vietnam on Friday, followed by the Netherlands — whom the U.S. defeated in the 2019 final —on July 26 and then Portugal on Aug. 1.
Carli Lloyd, the hero of the 2015 title run, has retired, and Megan Rapinoe, the force behind the 2019 championship side, has been relegated to a super-sub. Alex Morgan, now 34, has shown good goal-scoring form since moving to the San Diego Wave last season, but the attacking success of the team might come down to a pair of cup newcomers: Sophia Smith and Trinity Rodman.
Smith, who will turn 23 on Aug. 10, was the MVP of the 2022 National Women's Soccer League season and championship game, helping lift the Portland Thorns to their third title. Her speed, soccer IQ and superb finishing ability has made life miserable for opponents. Rodman, 21, has been mainly used as a sub in her international career thus far. She demonstrated her potential in her most recent appearance off the bench by scoring two goals — with Smith assisting the first one — in the 2-0 win against Wales in the send-off game on July 9.
A quality defensive midfielder goes a long way to having success at a major international tournament. Julie Ertz filled that role perfectly in 2019. After missing months of game time due to giving birth to her son, Madden, last August, Ertz has worked herself back into shape, training with the Phoenix Rising Under-20 team (USL Championship) and playing for Angel City FC.
Rose Lavelle, the Bronze Ball winner in 2019 who scored the in the final, has been hobbled by a knee injury and hasn't played since April 8. The 28-year-old has said she’ll be good to go once the tournament starts, but time will tell how effective she’ll be after more than three months without game time.
Alyssa Naeher ascended to world-class goalkeeper status in France four years ago, but there are questions about the backline. Veteran Becky Sauerbrunn, who will miss competition due to a foot injury, leaves a gaping hole in the middle. Two cup rookies, Naomi Girma and Alana Cook, have barely played together at center back. How they react to pressure and adversity could mean the difference between survival and elimination. Crystal Dunn is one of the best left backs on the planet, while Emily Fox and Kelley O'Hara could share the right back position.
More headlines are written about goal-scoring, and rightfully so, but the U.S. has won three of its four world championships by limiting the opposition to three goals (1999, 2015 and 2019). The 1991 championship side in the first World Cup conceded five goals. The cliché of “defense wins championships” reigns true in major international tournaments, and this unit’s backline may be the difference between a fifth championship or going home empty-handed.
Gone are the days of the U.S. rolling over its foes. More teams have better talent and greater depth. Germany, the second-ranked team in the world, might have the best chance of ending the dream of a three-peat. England is the defending European champion but must overcome injuries to key players such as attacking midfielder Fran Kirby and forward Beth Mead.
France boasts captain Wendie Renaud, one of the world’s best center backs, while Spain will be led by attacking midfielder Alexia Putellas, who will be returning from an ACL injury after winning the UEFA Women’s Player of the Year Award in 2021 and 2022.
Canada, which won the gold medal in Tokyo two years ago, still pose a threat, as 40-year-old Christine Sinclair — who’s 190 goals are the most in the history of international soccer— will play in her final World Cup. Co-host Australia won its opening match 1-0 against Ireland despite playing without Sam Kerr. The star striker, who scored five goals in four games at the 2019 World Cup, will miss Australia’s first two games with a calf injury.
Sweden, the silver medalists in Tokyo, has been a thorn in the side to the U.S. Sweden played the Americans to a scoreless draw at the 2015 World Cup, eliminated them in the 2016 Olympic quarterfinals and beat them 3-0 at the 2020 Olympics. And then there’s Brazil. Former U.S. coach Pia Sundhage, who managed Sweden at the 2016 Olympics, guides the South American team, which includes 37-year-old Marta, who is playing in her sixth World Cup.
Under the safe assumption the U.S. makes it to the knockout round, it will face stiff competition at that point. When the Americans won in 2019, they got past Spain, France and England by 2-1 results before defeating the Dutch 2-0 in the final. The U.S. can expect similar battles on its quest for a third-straight title.