Road to the World Cup begins in Cary for USWNT
The road to the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup in France begins in Cary for the U.S. Women’s National Team. That’s where the 2018 CONCACAF Women’s Championship kicks off this Thursday, with WakeMed Soccer Park serving as one of two sites for the tournament’s group stage. The USWNT will play three matches over a week’s time in Cary, hoping, nay expecting to advance to the knockout stage in Frisco, TX.
If there’s an air of inevitability about the USWNT’s chances in this tournament, there’s a legitimate, logical reason: the U.S. has only lost one match ever in a CONCACAF tournament. But that one stumble came in the semifinals of the 2010 Women’s Championship to Mexico, the team the U.S. opens play against this week in Cary. That defeat forced the U.S. to take a more circuitous, nerve-racking route to qualify for the 2010 World Cup.
United States head coach Jill Ellis was a youth national team manager back in 2010 and remembers the rigors of that year. “Having to go to the playoff round always makes you realize that nothing is given or guaranteed,” Ellis told WRALSportsFan in May. “You have to earn it every minute of every day. People talk about France [site of next year’s World Cup], and I’m like, oh my God, we have to lock this down in qualifying.”
Only four players on this week’s USWNT roster in Cary were part of the 2010 qualifying squad. Megan Rapinoe and Becky Sauerbrunn are two of them, and Rapinoe can chuckle now recalling that unexpected turn into unfamiliar territory. “I think a lot of people on the team didn’t know there was a half spot, so some people were like, ‘oh my god, we’re done.’ This is it.”
“Everyone knows you have to take it game by game,” Rapinoe continues. “But we do have up-close and personal experience with having to go a longer route [to qualify for the World Cup]. It’s not something we dwell on, but it is a good reminder to keep locked in and focused, and treat every game as if it’s the most important game in the qualification.”
“We’re the United States of America, and we’re ranked number one consistently,” Sauerbrunn says. “When teams play us, they bring their A-game. So you can’t take anything for granted or rest on any team, Mexico in particular. We’ve had really tight games against them in a lot of our qualification tournaments.”
The United States has played in Cary on seven previous occasions, most recently a friendly against South Korea last fall. That tally will increase by three over the coming week, as the U.S. is joined by Mexico, Trinidad and Tobago, and Panama in the group stage. The USWNT will play each country, with the top two teams in points advancing to the knockout round. The top three teams in the entire tournament will automatically qualify for the 2019 World Cup, while the fourth-place country can still earn their way to France through a playoff.
“This is a great venue. We love playing here,” Ellis says. “And we always get a good turnout [here]. Sometimes when you’re playing [World Cup] qualifiers, because there are doubleheaders and other games, the crowds are potentially not as big as when we have standalone games. But for us, we were delighted that we’re coming here.”
During the 2014 CONCACAF Championship, the U.S. played their three group stage matches at three different sites. This year, the USWNT will play all three games in one location, a change that Rapinoe approves.
“Obviously, the less travel we have to do, the better,” Rapinoe says. “It allows us to settle in. There’s not very much time between the games, so for us to be able to go back to the hotel, relax, be comfortable there, that’s really nice.”
The USWNT has also undergone an evolution since its last major international competition, the 2016 Rio Olympics, abruptly ended with the Americans being bounced by Sweden in the quarterfinals. While many players from the Rio roster remain, Ellis has integrated a number of younger additions, including Sam Mewis and Abby Dahlkemper of the NC Courage, Rose Lavelle, and UCLA defender Hailie Mace.
Rio also taught Ellis that her team needed to update their tactics in the face of rapidly improving international competition. Sauerbrunn, who has 143 caps as a defender on the USWNT, says the team has become “more high-pressing defensively, so we’re winning balls higher up on opponents, which gives us a better chances of attacking and scoring goals.”
Lindsey Horan, who has become a midfield mainstay for the USWNT, says the two-year upheaval extends to the team’s style of play, which has become more dynamic and pliable.
“We are trying to play that nice style of play that we like watching,” Horan says. “We’re connecting and playing good football, but also knowing that this national team is one of the best attacking, transitioning teams in the world, if not the best.”
“Before , we played very similarly,” Rapinoe adds. “We didn’t change formations that much. A lot of the lineups were the same, from the same 14-15 players. Now, we’ve played so many different lineups and so many different players have played, and we have so many different formations that we can go to. It felt like it was a little more simple before, and we’ve really tried to challenge that and put more into our toolbag.”
Longtime players have also adapted their game to Ellis’ new demands. Horan, who won the NWSL MVP this year, says she’s been particularly impressed with Alex Morgan’s conversion.
“I never necessarily thought of [Morgan] as the hold-up forward, but she now can get a ball with back to goal and do so much with it,” Horan says. “She is keeping the ball for us, and that’s one of the most important parts of our game, being able to get into our no. 9 and being able to play off of her. I respect her so much; she’s not the youngest player on this team anymore, but her adapting to what we’re trying to do is amazing. And then she has the strength of going in behind, as well. She’s so fast and so smart with her runs.”
Another change has been establishing Crystal Dunn, a speedy attacker with the NC Courage, as the national team’s left back. Rapinoe, who plays off the left midfield, says her new portside pairing with Dunn has been terrific.
“I love playing with Crystal. She’s phenomenal,” Rapinoe says. “I think we see the game the same way and want to play the same style. I think we work really well off of each other; we have a great relationship on the field, but also off we’re pretty close. It’s probably not always her favorite to play defense, and I understand why – she’s phenomenal going forward. But I think that’s a huge advantage for us.”
Rapinoe admits the constantly tinkering has asked a lot of the ever-altering squad.
“It’s been difficult to play all these different lineups,” Rapinoe says. “You don’t know who’s playing with you. – sometimes you’re playing with someone you’re comfortable with, sometimes you’ve never played with someone. Constantly changing the team, but having to still do the job and understand tactically what’s being asked of us. It’s challenging in a good way, but it hasn’t been easy and at times purposely disjointed.”
Over the next week, a confident USWNT will apply their changes to the first meaningful tests.
“We’re just a more savvy, complete team then we were in 2016,” Sauerbrunn says.