Focus for American soccer fans, at least internationally, has now zeroed onto the U.S. Women’s National Team in France this summer.
With just one loss in 24 matches dating back to last June, the USWNT began their hunt for back-to-back FIFA Women’s World Cup titles in Reims against Thailand on Tuesday. As they did in the opener, a 13-0 thrashing that opened conversations of fair play and sociological factors contributing to equality in the women’s game, they’re expected to cruise through to the knockout stages. Sweden is poised to be the only serious test that could prevent them from winning a Group F that also includes Chile.
Anything less than an appearance in the final will be read as a failure by many fans when figuring that in eight tries, there’s never been a time that the Stars and Stripes haven’t been in at least the semifinals.
Tuesday’s scoreline shouldn’t dismiss the realization that a tough road to continue that dominance still lies ahead. If both nations win their group, a quarterfinal would pit the Americans against hosts France, the one team that did get the best of the U.S. with a 3-1 friendly victory back in January. The U.S. defense in its lead-up to France looked shaky, and it’s the first major tournament for goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher, who was always going to be at a disadvantage in filling the starting role between the sticks for Hope Solo. Fairly or not, plenty will judge USWNT coach Jill Ellis all over again depending on whether she can bring home a fourth title.
Elsewhere, plenty is at stake for a rebuilding men’s program, which begins what it hopes will be a successful run in the CONCACAF Gold Cup on Tuesday against Guyana. Children’s Mercy Park will play host to the final and most critical of the three group matches when Panama comes to town on June 26th.
The foremost question will be asked by some supporters: Is winning the Gold Cup a meaningful sign? Increasingly, as negativity has boiled among analysts and supporters in the weeks leading into the competition, the notion that it is has become clearer.
The U.S. won its sixth Gold Cup two summers ago under Bruce Arena before the longtime L.A. Galaxy manager led the team to its now infamous failure in World Cup qualifying in the months that followed. In that regard, success in the confederation’s featured tournament can’t be a predictive measure.
With a much younger group at Gregg Berhalter’s dispense, the development of younger players and performance of some familiar, more established faces in a tournament setting has been unofficially billed by many as a primary viewing factor. But injuries, coupled with a pair of international friendlies that served as warm-ups to the Gold Cup, have offered little, if any encouragement.
After beginning his tenure with three wins and a 1-1 draw to Chile, Behalter’s teams fell in consecutive outings, first 1-0 to Jamaica, then 3-0 to Venezuela. Those have only fueled conversation regarding a lack of attacking talent in the player pool. Pushing aside leaving Missouri native Josh Sargent at home, a puzzling move, options going forward beyond striker Jozy Altidore and the Chelsea-bound Christian Pulisic appear thin.
Injuries are raising doubts about the team’s prospects of success, too. It was revealed Tuesday that one of the country’s brightest rising stars, Tyler Adams (RB Leipzig), will miss the tournament due to a groin injury. Already without the ailing duo of John Brooks and DeAndre Yedlin on the back line, Berhalter is left with another less-experienced or mistake-prone defender to choose from.
Several weeks ago, the U.S. reached the quarterfinals and narrowly lost to Ecuador at the FIFA U-20 World Cup. At least a few promising players from that team, including Timothy Weah (PSG), Chris Richards (Bayern Munich) and Sebastian Soto (Hannover), should help lift the tide of talent, for the long haul. But the performance by coach Tab Ramos’ group by the U-20s, along with the senior team’s failure to inspire against Jamaica and Venezuela, is triggering frustration from an already impatient American fan base searching for the kind of success the U.S. Women are forecasted.
Juxtaposed to the Women’s World Cup, lifting another Gold Cup this summer might not mean anything in U.S. Soccer’s plan to gain ground on world soccer powers. In the short term, though, winning might go a long way for all those invested.