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2023 Women's World Cup

Meet the USWNT’s Women’s World Cup group stage opponents

Photo: David Catry/SPP

The 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup is officially underway in Australia and New Zealand with the host nations kicking off the tournament on Thursday. Australia and New Zealand won their respect matches, with scorelines of 1-0 each.

On Friday, the United States women’s national team will begin their campaign to become the first-ever team — men’s or women’s — to win three consecutive World Cup trophies. To advance in the tournament, they’ll have to make it through the group stage which runs from July 20 through August 3. The United States was drawn into Group E alongside Vietnam, the Netherlands and Portugal. Each team will play each other once in a round-robin with only the top two teams in each group advance to the knockout rounds.

Group E brings some interesting challenges to the U.S., with a mix of both old and new foes between them and the Round of 16. Ahead of Friday’s match, here’s a quick explainer of everything you need to know about the three opponents the United States will be facing this week in the group stage of the World Cup.

United States vs. Vietnam, Friday, July 21

The United States will open the tournament by playing a completely new opponent on Friday when they take on Vietnam for the first time.

Vietnam may be one of eight nations making their FIFA Women’s World Cup debut this year, but despite sitting in 32nd place in world rankings, they’re not necessarily a total pushover. After qualifying for the tournament with a 2-1 win over Chinese Taipei in the AFC Women’s Asian Cup playoff, they won the South East Asian Games for the fifth time and recorded a fourth-place finish at the 2022 AFF Women’s Championship.

Most recently, Vietnam raised some eyebrows when they earned a 2-1 result against No. 2 ranked Germany in a June 24 friendly. Although the German side was heavily rotated, Vietnam was also missing their leading goal scorer and captain Huỳnh Như which makes such a close result even more impressive.

This game against Germany may give a glimpse of how the Vietnamese side will come out against the United States. Head coach Mai Duc Chung went with a 5-3-2 formation that maximized his side’s defensive capabilities. Germany dominated possession with 73% and managed 23 shots with seven on target, so Vietnam’s best chance against the U.S. may be relenting on possession and focusing on keeping the United States out.

Leading the front line for Vietnam will almost certainly be the aforementioned Huỳnh who made history in 2022 as Vietnam’s first women’s player to sign with a European club. She’ll likely be joined by fellow forward Nguyễn Thị Thúy Hằng who made a splash in the 2022 Asian Cup and scored Vietnam’s loan goal against Germany.

United States vs. Netherlands, Wednesday, July 26

If Vietnam was a new foe, the Netherlands are anything but. The U.S. beat the Dutch in the final of the previous World Cup in 2019 so this is sure to be a loaded rematch.

Ever since head coach Sarina Wiegman departed for England in 2021, the Netherlands has had some uneven fortunes. They’ve recently dropped down a spot to ninth place in the world rankings and while they have dominated matches against weaker nations like Cyprus and South Africa, they’ve had mixed results against mid-tier teams like Austria and the Czech Republic, and struggled against powerhouses like France and England.

It also doesn’t help that the Dutch will be missing a pivotal player in superstar Vivianne Miedema who was ruled out after tearing her ACL earlier this year. That’s not to say they’ll be lacking any star power, however. Jill Roord, Lieke Martens and Daniëlle van de Donk are just a few of the recognizable names who return from the 2019 squad. As far as young talent, 19-year-old Esmee Brugts has shown great versatility by being deployed both across the front line and as a full-back. Her game-winning goal against Iceland secured the Netherlands’ first-place finish in their qualifying group in the UEFA World Cup qualifiers in September 2022. She might not be guaranteed, but she’s a potential game-changer off the bench in tight matches.

Head coach Andries Jonker has only been in charge of the Dutch side since August of last year after Wiegman’s successor Mark Parsons was fired. In his short time as coach, Jonker has deployed a variety of positions including alternating through three-, four- and five-backs in recent matches. It’s hard to guess exactly how he’ll plan to come out against the United States but a traditional, balanced 4-3-3 or the defensive-minded 5-3-2 they recently came out in against Germany seem like definite possibilities.

United States vs. Portugal, Tuesday, August 1

If Vietnam is the underdog and the Netherlands is the top rival, the United States’ final opponent, Portugal, is something in-between.

It took them 13 matches to finally qualify for the World Cup with 10 in the group phase of UEFA qualifying, two in European playoffs and a final match in the inter-confederation playoffs in February to seal the deal. Despite this long road to the World Cup, Portugal has been putting up some strong results against solid teams. They went on a six-game winning streak from September 2022 until April 2023 when Japan beat them 2-1. Portugal then came back and earned a 1-1 draw against Wales and really caught the world’s attention when they went nil-nil against fourth-ranked England earlier this month.

They’re currently ranked 21st in the world which is an all-time high for the women’s side. One of the most important players on the squad is unquestionably Jessica Silva who has played for both France’s Olympique Lyonnais and the National Women’s Soccer League’s Kansas City Current. The winger recently earned her 100th cap in the draw against Wales in April and has scored 14 goals for her country.

In their successful draw against England a few weeks ago, head coach Francisco Neto deployed a 4-1-2-1-2. They conceded almost all possession to England and were battered by 23 shots with eight on goal, but they still kept England from scoring. In fact, opponents have only scored against Portugal seven times in their last 10 games. In this same period, Portugal scored 23 goals and earned seven wins, two draws, and only one loss. In other words, Portugal has proven to be a hard team to break down.

What does this mean for the U.S.?

As the reigning World Cup champions and current number one team in the world, the United States are clear favorites to make it out of the group stage. There’s no question that the biggest threat the United States faces in the group stage is the rematch against the Netherlands. Failing to beat Vietnam or Portugal would be seen as a catastrophic failure for the U.S., who has never finished below third place in a World Cup.

The likelihood of losing to either of these teams is fairly small, but the thing about sports is that anything can happen. Any team has the potential to beat another on any given day. And if the United States’ opponents have anything in their favor, it’s that they’ve all deployed a low block to some level of success in recent matches.

The U.S. has recently struggled with breaking down defensive formations, as seen in their recent matches against the Republic of Ireland and Wales. Although the United States ultimately won all these matches, it took them a substantial amount of time to work their way through traffic and find the back of the net. If Portugal and Vietnam can hunker down and limit the United States’ chances, they could potentially grab a point back with a draw — which would be considered a wild success against the number one team in the world.

Check out the United States’ first match in the 2023 World Cup against Vietnam this Friday at 9 PM ET on Fox.

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