We now know the 10 teams the United States will play in 2019 as preparation for the Women’s World Cup. The list is enticing, but it also serves to highlight an area where the women’s game is still sorely lacking. Finding opponents to prepare for a major tournament has long been a hang-up in a sport where coaches historically loathe showing their tactical hands ahead of time. If Brazil believe they have the tactics to pull an upset of the United States, do they test them at the SheBelieves Cup or hold them until a potential showdown at the World Cup? If the latter, what then do they hope to achieve from a match in March?
The reality is that there are not enough suitably competitive national teams in the women’s game yet, and so the best opponents to prepare for a major event are almost always the top contenders for said event. Among the teams the United States will play between January and the World Cup, it will be the third match in as many years against each of France, England, Japan, Brazil and Australia. They recently played Canada three times inside of a year and Germany in 2017 and 2018.
Whereas a year ago there was chatter about the U.S. men partnering with the likes of Italy and the Netherlands to have a tournament of non-World Cup qualifiers, there are simply not enough good women’s teams that don’t qualify for the World Cup to avoid potential opponents. Switzerland and Denmark would be exceptions, plus maybe Costa Rica and Mexico, but in many cases those teams do not convene at every opportunity to play a friendly. So, contenders playing contenders remains the norm.
The question then is: Which teams benefit from this arrangement? The U.S. handled Brazil and Japan with relative ease at last summer’s Tournament of Nations and appear to have both over a barrel at the moment. Both are Pot 2 teams at the World Cup which means that (barring a change to world rankings on Friday), they could be group opponents for the U.S. next summer. Is U.S. head coach Jill Ellis risking her team throwing a lifeline of confidence to either? Could dominant wins for the U.S. crush their belief? I would suggest that Japan is more likely to gain confidence, while Brazil’s psyche issues are far deeper than anything a single friendly can fix.
For me, the cases of England and Australia are far more intriguing. At a time when just about every major international women’s team is in some sort of transition, England and Australia are on most short lists as World Cup contenders. And both have shown in recent years that they can give the U.S. all they can handle…and that they are not afraid to play the Americans.
England will be the only SheBelieves Cup regular to return for a fourth go at the event. Two years ago, they survived a bitter cold afternoon at Red Bull Arena and earned a 1-0 victory on a late goal by Ellen White. In this year’s edition, the sides played a tactical stalemate that the United States eventually wrested control of and won on an own goal near the hour mark. Analyzing those two matches in a vacuum would give the impression that the teams are about even and that perhaps England would have a slight edge in a World Cup meeting on European soil.
Outside the vacuum, England are still adjusting to Phil Neville, who was brand new on the job at the 2018 SheBelieves Cup. Neville took over after the sacking on Mark Sampson, whose once successful tenure became clouded by allegations of bigotry and player mistreatment. The year 2018 was highlighted by qualification for the World Cup. It included only two losses, the last a 2-0 setback at home against Sweden that sent them into the winter break. England are more likely to benefit from another match against the United States and they’ll have to do so with full faith that they can be as good or better if they meet the United States again this summer.
The Australia scenario is even more compelling. The Matildas defeated the United States handily at the 2017 Tournament of Nations. Their 2018 match was a good one. Australia took an early lead and then held on for dear life until Lindsey Horan’s stoppage-time equalizer.
Unlike England, Australia have been on a near perfect arc toward the top of the game. Every result has not been perfect and there have been missteps along the way, but the Aussies have been free and clear of coaching carousels and personnel transitions that have hit other top sides this cycle. They have never before been to the semifinal round of a World Cup or Olympics, but they are getting better and have hung with every good side they have played the last three years. In Sam Kerr, they have the most dangerous player on the pitch in every match, and that is a warning to any opponent at any time in any scenario.
Australia did recently lose at home to Chile, and there are legitimate questions about the viability of their defense over a seven-match World Cup. But they have done enough against the United States the last two summers that they should be ready to make the ultimate statement should they face off in France. Will an April friendly improve their chances, or might it burst the bubble? At this point I would argue the latter, but clearly head coach Alan Stajcic is banking on the former.
As for the United States, they are the world’s top team and so anyone they play will be trying to catch them. They can either hang full-time in the South Korea, South Africa and Mexico realm of games (both South Korea and South Africa have been a handful in recent years) or they can give opportunities to the other serious contenders. Will England or Australia find something in the preparation matches that allows them to spring an upset when it matters most?
That is all part of the chess match, and in this game the United States still has superior position since they are the world champions and the side with the best depth. But as a not-deep-enough women’s field makes final preparations for the World Cup, you never know which match — which formation, which delivery or abandonment of confidence — will wind up paying the ultimate dividend.
|Jan. 19||France||2:30 p.m. ET||Stade Océane; La Havre, France|
|Jan. 22||Spain||2:30 p.m. ET||Estadio José Rico Perez; Alicante, Spain|
|Feb. 27||Japan – SheBelieves Cup||7 p.m. ET||Talen Energy Stadium; Chester, Pa.|
|March 2||England – SheBelieves Cup||4:30 p.m. ET||Nissan Stadium; Nashville, Tenn.|
|March 5||Brazil – SheBelieves Cup||8 p.m. ET||Raymond James Stadium; Tampa, Fla.|
|April 4||Australia||9 p.m. ET||Dick’s Sporting Goods Park; Commerce City, Colo.|
|April 7||Belgium||9 p.m. ET||Banc of California Stadium; Los Angeles, Calif.|
|May 12||South Africa||4:30 p.m. ET||Levi’s Stadium; Santa Clara, Calif.|
|May 16||TBA (based on WWC Draw)||8 p.m. ET||Busch Stadium; St. Louis, Mo.|
|May 26||Mexico||12 p.m. ET||Red Bull Arena; Harrison, N.J.|