The long wait is over. After nearly four years, the United States women’s soccer team will begin its quest to avenge defeat in the 2011 final when taking on Australia in its opening game of the 2015 Women’s World Cup. Although the U.S. women's team has won three successive gold medals at the Olympics, World Cup glory has eluded it since 1999. In Germany in 2011 came the most agonizing failure yet, as Japan twice came from behind to upset the U.S. in a dramatic penalty shootout win in the final.
The U.S. again enter the tournament as group favorites, although there has been significant change since taking the gold at the Summer Olympics in London three years ago. Much of it hasn’t been smooth sailing, with the initial replacement for coach Pia Sundhage -- former Australia coach Tom Sermanni -- lasting only 15 months in the job before being dismissed. His replacement, Jill Ellis, has had just over a year to put her philosophy across and prepare the team to vie for redemption in Canada.
It will not be easy for the U.S. team, having been drawn into a section of four teams that instantly earned the description of “group of death.” The clichéd moniker is not without justification. It is the only group to feature three teams currently ranked in the top 10 of FIFA’s rankings, with the second-place U.S. joined by No. 5-ranked Sweden and No. 10 Australia. Rounding out the group is Africa’s top team, Nigeria. With the top two teams along with the four best third-placed teams qualifying for the Round of 16 in a World Cup that has been expanded to a record 24 teams, there remains ample breathing room.
But Ellis had had to battle significant issues both on and off the pitch leading into her team’s first game. Away from the action, a report by ESPN has brought attention back to a domestic violence incident involving goalkeeper Hope Solo last June. Despite a suspension earlier this year for another off-field incident, Solo remains a key part of the team and will keep goal for the U.S. in her third World Cup.
Just how much of a part another of the squad’s high-profile members will play remains in doubt, however. Forward Alex Morgan missed the team’s three warm-up games with a knee injury and, following the send-off game against South Korea last week, Ellis stated that Morgan would have to gradually rebuild her fitness throughout the World Cup. Morgan, though, has since returned to full training and is eager to get back on the field.
“If called upon to start, I’d be ready to start,” Morgan said after training on Sunday, NBC Sports reported. “Obviously I don’t know what Jill’s plan is, but if I need to play 90 [minutes], then I will play 90.”
With or without Morgan, who looks likely to stay on the bench, the U.S. team has reason to feel confident going up against Australia in Winnipeg. The U.S. holds a 22-0-2 all-time record against the team from Down Under and has outscored its opponents 83-20 during that time.
But Australia did reach the quarterfinals of the last two World Cups, having qualified for every edition since 1991. This time around, it made it to Canada after reaching the final of last year’s Asia Cup, where the team lost 1-0 to World Cup holders Japan.
Coached by Alen Stajcic, Australia will rely heavily on forward Lisa de Vanna, who has scored a team-high 35 international goals and on Monday is set to make her 100th appearance for her country.
“I'm excited, I think I'm excited because of the circumstances at a World Cup, against the U.S., against a big team and a team we haven't won against before” De Vanna said, the Sydney Morning Herald reported. “Just the sentiment of it. I'm always looking to the next game and striving for me so the whole situation and the hype about it is what makes it exciting.”
Start Time: 7:30 p.m. EDT
TV Channel: Fox Sports 1, NBC Universo