GATINEAU, Canada — Bring it.
That’s the best response the U.S. could have after Lady Luck gave the Americans the most difficult group possible — Sweden, Australia and Nigeria — for next summer’s Women’s World Cup.
But if you expect to win World Cups — and the U.S. most definitely does — then you can’t be saying the sky is falling when you end up in the Group of Death. And besides, I’d argue the U.S. is better off in a tough group. The challenge means the U.S. will have to get dialed in early next summer and can’t afford to coast. What’s more, there’s still a margin for error, considering the larger tournament (up to 24 teams from 16) means teams that finish third in their group can still advance.
Compare the U.S.’s group to the pillow-soft groups for Germany (Ivory Coast, Thailand, Norway) and defending champion Japan (Switzerland, Cameroon, Ecuador) and I’d take the U.S.’ situation in a heartbeat.
“With some of the other groups, that next round is going to be a challenge,” said U.S. coach Jill Ellis. “Maybe if you have an easier route, mentally you take your foot off the gas. I definitely think we’ll be primed and ready.”
One other benefit for U.S. fans: These group stage games should be a blast to watch, with storylines galore and plenty at stake. That wouldn’t have been the case if the U.S. had drawn Ecuador and Thailand.
Sweden, coached by former U.S. manager Pia Sundhage, is the tournament’s best non-seeded team (and actually got hosed by not being one instead of lower-ranked Brazil). The Swedes won against the U.S. in the group stage of the last World Cup and are the only team in Canada 2015 that has beaten the Americans in the last two years.
No opposing coach in this tournament knows the U.S. better than Sundhage, who led the U.S. for five years, winning two Olympic gold medals and a runner-up spot at the last World Cup. Ellis, Sundhage’s former U.S. assistant, had a wry smile when asked about having to play the Swedes.
“We hugged and shared a few expletives,” she said of her reaction with Sundhage in the draw hall. “We kind of joked about it earlier in the day actually. I said to her, ‘Maybe we’ll see you in group play.’ She said, ‘I hope we’ll see you in the final.’ Both of us recognize it’s a challenging group, and both teams have to play well.”
Nigeria is Africa’s best team and recently reached the final of this year's Under-20 World Cup. Meanwhile, Australia is a World Cup regular with plenty of talent and several players who ply their trade in the NWSL.
The U.S., the No. 1-ranked team in the world, has won the last three Olympic titles but hasn’t raised the World Cup trophy since 1999. But with an attack and defense that have been upgraded since the painful 2011 final loss to Japan in Frankfurt, the Americans will be the favorite next summer.
“This team is ready for anything,” said Ellis, who was flying from here to Brasília to join her team ahead of a tournament with Brazil, China and Argentina. “Having played in the Olympics and challenged France in the first round, I think our team recognizes they have to go through every team, any team, to get to where we want to be. I’m confident in the next five months we’ll get this team ready to play in that group.”
I also spoke to Ellis on Friday night in some more detail about a few other topics. Here’s what she had to say:
On the Brazil tournament: “What we wanted to try and do was play the top teams in the next six months. I knew Brazil was hosting a tournament, so we asked if we could be involved in that. The other thing I’d heard about Brazil was they had good fan support, and I wanted to take the team into an environment where they’re probably not going to be the favored team … We have a chance to play Brazil twice. Also, it’s in the same rhythm as the World Cup, meaning we play, then three days off, then play again.”
On the upcoming 2015 away friendlies against France and England: “We’re going to France, and it’ll be games on [artificial] turf. The England game won’t be on turf. But if you had to put a target on [the top] teams, they’d be Brazil, France, Germany, Japan, Sweden. Those are the teams I really wanted to play in the next five to six months leading up to the World Cup. The Algarve Cup will hopefully give us another opportunity to get a couple of those teams in.”
On what she wants to get done on the field before the World Cup: “A big part of this will be building our fitness. That’s going to be a process that will kick off really in January [camp]. On the tactical side, we started to see a shape that we’re pretty comfortable in, still fine-tuning and developing our No. 10 position. It’s something I want to continue to work on.”
“My focus going into Brazil will be transition defense. Respectfully, in CONCACAF [qualifying] we had a majority of the ball, and one of the things going to Brazil is we’re going to really look at different lines of engagement defensively, looking to maybe at times sit deeper to create the counter. Just nuances tactically that we’ll be able to go in and out of in a game.”
“One thing we have to really nail down is when are we pressing? And when are we dropping to our established shape? And where are we dropping to our established shape? Against the CONCACAF teams we were able to put the pedal [down] and press-press-press. And on the attacking side, it’s going to be just continuing to develop how we play and our style.”
On whether she’s preparing for the increasing likelihood that the World Cup games will be played on artificial turf: “Yeah. I think at this point that’s been my mindset. To give you an idea, in January we’ll have access in L.A. to both a turf field and a grass field. The challenge is balancing the physical load on all that. It is more of a physical load. It’s not jumping too much, but it’s making sure we get enough time on a turf field to know how it plays and how we play on it. In my mindset, we’ll be playing on turf.”