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As USWNT Heads to Women's World Cup, Uncertainty Surrounds the Champs

The USWNT showed off how potent its attack is and cruised to a big win over Mexico in its final "send-off" game before the Women's World Cup but there are still questions surrounding the team as it prepares to go to France. 

HARRISON, N.J. — In its last game before the World Cup starts on June 7, the U.S. women’s national team beat Mexico 3-0 on Sunday at Red Bull Arena with goals by Tobin Heath, Mallory Pugh and Christen Press. But in the bigger picture, the most important things were that the U.S. suffered no injuries and felt like it was departing for the World Cup on a higher note than on each of the previous final “send-off” games that took place in the same stadium in 2011 and ’15.

Compared to the 2011 game, the attendance Sunday (26,332) was almost five times the size of the 5,852 that came eight years ago, reflecting the sea change in popularity that the defending World Cup champions are enjoying these days. And while Sunday’s win against Mexico could have been significantly bigger, given the amount of chances the U.S. created, there were more positive moments than in the 0-0 send-off game against South Korea here in 2015.

“I thought back to our performance here that we had in 2015, which was actually a really poor performance on our part, and we had a bad feeling to go to that World Cup with that as our last game,” said Press, who had a tremendously composed 88th-minute finish to score the final U.S. goal on Sunday. “We can absolutely play better than we did today, 100%, but it’s a far better place than we were four years ago. And four years ago, we won [that World Cup].”

Press is a prime example of just how scary the U.S.’s attacking depth is in 2019. The American front three in the first half was Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan and Heath. They were replaced after halftime by Press, Carli Lloyd and Pugh, who would start on basically any other national team in the world.

When Press is at her best, she does things that few other American players can do. Witness the goal she scored against Spain earlier this year after running half the length of the field with the ball, or the patience she had in the box on her goal Sunday. “Phenomenal,” said Rapinoe afterward. “She’s such a good finisher, super-composed around the box. Her little fake to set herself up on the left was just beautiful.”

Press’s ceiling is enormous; she’s capable of being the U.S.’s breakout star of the World Cup. But she’s also capable of not creating much of an impact, which makes her one of the USWNT’s most intriguing players.

If Rapinoe did have one concern about the U.S. attack, it was over the hesitation to take a pause in certain moments like Press did in the 88th. “The key is understanding of the game and dominating games with our tactics and being able to control games that way,” Rapinoe said. “I still think we’re way too impatient, and I think we get caught in this transition-style game where we just go-go-go-go-go. We need to go when we get the best chance, not just when we get a chance. I think throughout the World Cup, especially in a seven-game tournament over a short period of time, we can play that game for maybe one or two or three games in a row, but physically we make ourselves do a lot of work doing that.

“So we’ll need to be able to play a different style and control the game in a different way, and I think as well teams will probably sit in on us a little more, so we won’t be able to just go every time. We’ll need to be able to break down that low block.”

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The inability to do that against Sweden sent the U.S. out of the 2016 Olympics in the quarterfinals. But this U.S. team has more players who can break you down one-on-one and create space on the ball on their own. That was personified in the first half on Sunday by Rose Lavelle, who befuddled the Mexicans on the dribble and even brought down an errant pass with an outrageous scorpion kick touch before passing to Heath (who missed her chance on goal).

The U.S. will be the favorite to win in France, largely due to having the most firepower we’ve ever seen in the history of the program. But the Americans are also less of a favorite than they were six months ago, not least because their defense has struggled at times against top competition, whether it was in the 3-1 friendly loss at France in January or in the SheBelieves Cup this year, which was won by England.

And while the USWNT did compete against world-class competition earlier in the year, its last four games before the World Cup were against less competitive teams in Belgium (6-0), South Africa (3-0), New Zealand (5-0) and Mexico (3-0). With two expected blowouts to open the World Cup against Thailand and Chile, the competition will take a swift spike upward in the third game against Sweden and in the knockout rounds thereafter.

I asked U.S. coach Jill Ellis if she would have preferred to have more difficult opposition in the most recent four games.

“When you do scheduling, you do it a year out,” she said. “No [World Cup-contending] teams are going to travel to us. We have to have three send-off games [in the U.S.], so teams aren’t going to travel from Europe at this point to come play us. So it’s really getting teams that are en route to the host country, so it’s part of that in terms of logistics. … Historically, it’s challenging. Unless we’re willing to travel early, it’s tough to get those top teams to come at this late a date. Actually, most of them are together already in Europe.”

The U.S. will now head to Europe as well. For the next week, the team will be training in London at the grounds of Tottenham Hotspur before heading to France around June 7. (The U.S. and Thailand will be the last teams to play their first World Cup game, which happens on the evening of June 11 in Reims.)

After a stay this week in New York that was dominated by media promotion, the U.S. players said they were ready for a quiet stretch of training and focusing inward on themselves and the team.

“We have been talking about how excited we are to get out of here,” said Morgan on Sunday. “No offense to anyone, but we are ready to kind of have that tight-knit community within our team and just continue to build that chemistry and to do team-bonding activities. And also, no offense, to just get away from the media for a little bit. Just everyone kind of disconnects with everything and connects more with the team. So we’re looking forward to that piece of it and just enjoying everyone’s company before the roller-coaster gets real.”