The holders have a swashbuckling attack-first style and, though a shaky defence may be a concern, theyre still among the favourites
This article is part of the Guardians 2019 Womens World Cup Experts Network, a cooperation between some of the best media organisations from the 24 countries who have qualified for France. theguardian.com is running previews from two countries each day in the run-up to the tournament kicking off on 7 June.
It has been an occasionally tumultuous four years for the World Cup holders. The afterglow of a cross-country victory tour rapidly gave way to an abrupt quarter-final loss to Sweden at the 2016 Olympics and a controversial split with longtime goalkeeper Hope Solo, followed by an extended period of experimentation which saw Jill Ellis call up 61 different players in two and a half years. The choppiest waters came in 2017, when the team briefly ceded their world No 1 ranking to Germany after suffering three defeats on home soil: to England and Germany during a last-place finish at the SheBelieves Cup and the teams first ever loss to Australia in the Tournament of Nations. (And thats not even including the wage discrimination complaints and contentious collective bargaining agreement negotiations that have often overshadowed the results on the field.)
But Ellis finally settled on a 4-3-3 formation constructed around a number of mainstays: goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher (who held off Ashlyn Harris for the starting job), the central defence pairing of Abby Dahlkemper and Becky Sauerbrunn, Lindsey Horan and Julie Ertz in the midfield and Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan up front. The result? A 28-game unbeaten run that ended only in January.
A swashbuckling attack-first style marshalled by Rapinoe, Morgan, Tobin Heath, Mallory Pugh, Christen Press and old warhorse Carli Lloyd suggests the Americans will have no problem scoring goals in France. Whether they can keep their opponents from returning the favour often enough is the far more pressing issue. They opened the calendar year with a patchy record of two wins, two draws and one loss, including back-to-back games with multiple goals conceded for the first time since 2011. Naeher, always somewhat inconsistent for her country, has been done no favours by a back line thin on depth and experience: starting left-back Kelley OHara has been troubled by injury and right-back Crystal Dunn is playing out of position.
Thats not to say Elliss side doesnt enter the tournament as favourites on merit, but matching the 540 minutes without conceding a goal they managed in the 2015 World Cup feels highly unlikely.
In the end Jill Elliss roster for France drew overwhelmingly from the core group that emerged during the teams unbeaten 2018. The Portsmouth-born coach has taken a bit of criticism in the final runup to France for tinkering with formations and trying players in new roles when consistency should be the focus, but this is an experienced team more than half of the 2015 squad is back for the title defence that should be ready for what is afoot when the games start in earnest. The biggest tactical question is whether the US will be able to break down inferior teams with the ability to counter: they struggled to crack the code for a long stretch in the friendly win over South Africa, same as against Sweden in the Rio Olympics.
Take your pick from the United States embarrassment of attacking riches. No fewer than a half-dozen of the forwards in Elliss squad would play a feature role for any team in the tournament, including Morgan, Heath and Pugh. But 33-year-old Megan Rapinoe, whose creative verve at the Rio Olympics was stunted as she recovered from a third ACL injury, remains the straw that stirs the drink for the United States up top.
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