The draw for the 2015 Women’s World Cup could have been much ado about nothing for the United States, but it turns out the group stage will be emphatically challenging for the country still hanging its World Cup hats on Brandi Chastain’s 1999 penalty kick winner.
In a tournament where four of the six third-place finishers will advance to the knockout stage there is little chance of the United States getting stymied there, but in drawing Australia (June 8 in Winnipeg), Sweden (June 12 in Winnipeg), and Nigeria (June 16 in Vancouver) the possibility exists that Jill Ellis’ side will need some of its best soccer during the first half of the tournament. And a slip-up along the way could present some earlier than needed potholes in the elimination rounds if the U.S. is unable to win Group D.
[MORE: Groups and schedules | Five must-see group stage games]
“To win this thing, you’re going to have to play good teams,” Ellis said after her first draw as head coach of the full national team. “Certainly we’re in the toughest group. It’s going to be a physically challenging group and I certainly think that our depth is going to come into play for us. Obviously we’ve played Sweden and Australia many times and I know we’ve played Nigeria in a World Cup. But they’re all presenting slightly different challenges.”
This is the fourth straight World Cup in which the U.S. has met Sweden in the group stage.
Ellis said she expects to have a core group of players—though not the final World Cup roster—following the training camp in January and that it will not be until at least after the Algarve Cup in March that training will begin to focus on World Cup opponents.
“We want to continue to get better, but we’ve got to hit the ground running, there is not any slow introduction to this World Cup,” she said. “The bulk of our preparation has been on our performance. Now knowing our opponents makes it a little more clear, but I think certainly through the Algarve (Cup) it’s going to be about how we’re playing.”
The tipping match in the group is likely to be the middle tie against Sweden. Four years ago in Germany, Sweden defeated the United States in the final Group C match and earned a favorable quarterfinal against Australia, while the U.S. had to deal with Brazil. It took a stoppage-time-in-extra-time equalizer from Abby Wambach to make that distinction irrelevant. The U.S. wound up losing to Japan in the final while Sweden lost to Japan in the semifinals and then beat France for 3rd place.
[KASSOUF: USWNT’s road to World Cup title could be a brutal one]
This year, whoever tops Group D will meet a 3rd place finisher from one of Group B, E, or F in the Round of 16. Likely matchups include against Ivory Coast, Spain, Costa Rica, Mexico, and Colombia. But the runner-up in the group faces the winner from Group E where Brazil is the favorite. There is also the matter that after finishing group play June 16 in Vancouver (Australia and Sweden play in Edmonton), the group winner plays June 22 in Edmonton while the runner-up faces a trip east to Moncton to play a day earlier. Brazil finishes group play in Moncton.
“I haven’t looked that far ahead but that’s awesome information,” Ellis chuckled when asked about the extra rest day on a conference call after the draw. “It’s important though. We want to be top in our group for those reasons and I think psychologically you want to finish top of your group so you feel good about going in the knockout stages. We want to come out top. The advantages of finishing first, hopefully they play out. But you just never know what happens in the other groups.”
Ellis said she shared a pre-draw chuckle with Sweden coach Pia Sundhage, for whom she was an assistant on the U.S. team at the last World Cup. Post-draw Sundhage greeted Ellis with a Swedish phrase that the U.S. coach elected not to translate for the press.
In an email to The Equalizer, Sundhage said things obviously would have been different if Sweden were a seeded team, but “it is what it is now.”
And while Ellis was far from the players who she was flying out to meet in Brazil, she was quietly confident that no one was too worried about being part of the clichéd Group of Death.
“Our next phase is to train to be the best,” Ellis said. “It’s knowing that we’re going to have to really work hard to get out of our group. But also knowing that we have the confidence and ability to do that. I think the senior players will certainly share that message and present that to the team as far as how they conduct themselves. I’m sure they’ve probably already discussed it down there.”
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