One game at a time. That’s the mantra of the U.S. women’s soccer team today, as they play Thailand in their first match of the Women’s World Cup in France — after watching every other team play first.
U.S. coach Jill Ellis said the anticipation to get on the field has only grown as players watched the other teams face off. “I think the players are ready, excited, hungry,” she said in a news conference Monday evening. “I think we feel prepared. The process … has been a long one. But I think the players that we’ve selected and the preparation has been excellent.”
Thailand made its World Cup debut in 2015 and is one of five teams to qualify from Asia, a region that has not fared well in the tournament so far. The U.S. and Thailand have played just once before, in 2016, when the U.S. won 9-0. That game was notable for other reasons: It was veteran forward Heather O’Reilly’s farewell match, Megan Rapinoe took a knee during the U.S. national anthem and Carli Lloyd scored a hat trick.
Tuesday’s match takes place in Reims, a city east of Paris that’s known for its impressive cathedral and champagne. In recent days, the city’s car-free downtown plaza has been packed with fans wearing U.S. regalia — after France, U.S. fans have bought the second-highest number of tickets to the tournament.
The U.S. team brings a squad replete with talent and experience, but it also must shoulder sky-high expectations. The Yanks have won three previous World Cups, victories emblazoned in the three stars above the crest on their jerseys.
With an average age of 29, the U.S. squad is the oldest in the tournament. Even the team’s newer members such as forward Mallory Pugh and midfielder Lindsey Horan have been with the team at least three years and played at the last Olympics.
And the 2019 squad has many players familiar from the 2015 World Cup and before. Rapinoe, Tobin Heath, Becky Sauerbrunn, Kelley O’Hara, Ali Krieger and Alex Morgan are all playing their third World Cup. Lloyd, who had a hat trick against Japan in the 2015 final, will be called off the bench at clutch moments as she plays in her fourth World Cup.
Morgan says that sort of experience gives the team an edge. “A lot of these players who have had experience from the last World Cup or Olympics, we can look on that — look at both the successes and the defeats that we’ve had. I think that’s important to draw from both of those,” she told reporters on Monday.
The U.S. is expected to win its group, which includes Sweden and Chile in addition to Thailand. The toughest of those is Sweden, the country that knocked out the U.S. in the quarterfinals at the 2016 Olympics. But the U.S. faces Sweden last in the group stage, requiring some strategy by Ellis on whom to play and for how long, especially if she wants her best players to have fresh legs going into the knockout round.
The Thai squad has two U.S.-born members who have played for American colleges: Goalkeeper Tiffany Sornpao plays at Kennesaw State University in Georgia, and forward Miranda Nild played at UC Berkeley — Morgan’s alma mater.
Morgan said she had just spotted Nild in the hallway and introduced herself. “So it’s already friendly fire,” the U.S. forward said.
It remains to be seen how friendly that fire will seem when the U.S. team takes the pitch Tuesday, ready to show the world all that it can do.