When it kicks off its 2015 Women's World Cup in Canada on Monday, the United States women's national team will, as ever, be the favorite.
In more ways than one.
The Americans are favorites to win a record third title, snapping a 16-year drought. They'll also be the favorites of the fans. The U.S. team, after all, includes just about every female soccer player that has any kind of profile off the field. The likes of Hope Solo and Alex Morgan are well known not just stateside, but in other countries as well.
A survey of betting houses seems to confirm its status as the team to beat, with most giving the Americans 3/1 odds of winning it – a fractional edge over Germany, with everybody else well back.
Whether that tag of favorites is justified, however, is hard to say. Handicapping the field before a Women's World Cup is exceedingly hard. Every edition of the tournament introduces a few surprise teams, seemingly coming out of nowhere – countries whose development on the women's side has progressed faster than anybody had anticipated, suddenly yielding a real contender.
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Only the biggest fans of women's soccer – or "WoSo," in their parlance – could have told you France would be a semifinalist in 2011 and Japan the winner after beating the USA on penalties in the final. France had qualified for the Women's World Cup just once, in 2003, and was eliminated in the group stage then. Japan had been to every prior edition, but made it to the knockout rounds just once in five attempts.
But when there isn't a World Cup coming up – or an Olympic tournament, the following year – international women's soccer exists in a state of disarray. Many national teams, even strong ones like Brazil, are disbanded after the tournament, only to be revived three years later. Others go several cycles without bothering to try to qualify for another World Cup.
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When seven other CONCACAF countries from North and Central America and the Caribbean arrived stateside in October for their qualification tournament, Haiti had raised its own money to participate with various fundraisers. Trinidad and Tobago arrived without enough cash on hand to cover food and had to appeal for help on Twitter just to make it through the first few days.
The U.S. women's team, by comparison, has a multimillion dollar annual budget, a staff of half a dozen or so and plentiful resources to enlist state-of-the-art sports science and the like. The federation even subsidizes the National Women's Soccer League, paying the salaries of its national teamers to make the whole operation financially viable, just so their players have somewhere to play.
Which isn't to say that USA is under- or indeed over-achieving. It's just that making a comparison to other countries before a World Cup has kicked off is hard. Even the traditional European countries don't have budgets to match those of the Americans. It's apples and oranges. False equivalencies and all that.
The opponents are, in large part, a mystery. The U.S., on the other hand, is a commodity known down to most every detail. The Americans play year-round, every single year. Their players are all active in a league that's broadcasted. What's more, they play in one of the very few countries that has embraced its women as a bona fide national team. They have gained real mainstream traction. And whether for sporting or other reasons – appearances on "Dancing with the Stars," in Sports Illustrated's Swimsuit Issue, in ESPN The Magazine's Body Issue – several players have become household names.
The USA is arguably the world's only country where members of the women's team are more famous than those of the men's team.
But that begs the question: Is the U.S. women's national team the world's best? Or the best-branded?
Is it the gold standard of football? Or merely of fame?
Is it the best managed? Or the best marketed?
Is it the deepest team? Or the does it simply have the largest number of players we've heard of?
These are inconvenient questions for a program that has prided itself on its decade-long hold on the top ranking in the world – even though it recently surrendered it to Germany. But they are urgent questions all the same.
Those world rankings are skewed when few teams have adequate resources outside of World Cup years. And after the U.S. destroyed the opposition in the CONCACAF qualifiers, as expected, by a total scoring margin of 21-0 over five games, friendlies and tournaments against much stronger opposition left us none the wiser. In a December tournament in Brazil, the Americans tied China, lost to Brazil, clobbered Argentina and tied Brazil in their second bout.
In February, the Americans lost a friendly to France and narrowly defeated England. Then they won the Algarve Cup in March. Mixed results. Not much to go off of. Especially considering they were in the midst of a rejuvenation and a tactical modernization – the team had grown old and its playing style outdated – in fits and starts under Jill Ellis, who was installed full-time just a year ago.
Now consider that this World Cup has been expanded, for the first time, from 16 countries to 24, and that it will include an extra knockout round. While the field's depth will be diluted somewhat, the U.S. was drawn in the group of death against Australia, Sweden and Nigeria, all powerhouses in their respective regions. There will be no easing its way into this tournament, and there will be four knockout rounds to trip up in.
At the last World Cup, it quickly became apparent that the rest of the world was catching up to the Americans – there were close calls against Brazil in the quarterfinals and France in the semis. The lady Yanks had historically tended to be stronger, better conditioned and deeper than anybody, thanks to the conveyor belt of talent rolling out of the college ranks (thank you, Title XI). At least a handful of countries, if not more, can now match up confidently with the USA.
The Americans haven't progressed in equal measure. They were ahead of the game, after all, and can't do much more than tinker around the edges. But they're still a very fine team. Solo still dominates in goal when called upon. The defense is up to the job. Carli Lloyd and Lauren Holiday are probably the best central midfielders in the world. Megan Rapinoe, Tobin Heath and Christen Press bring savvy and whimsy from the wings. And in Morgan, Abby Wambach, Sydney Leroux and Amy Rodriguez, Ellis has a corps of strikers the like of which has never been seen – although finishing has at times been an issue of late.
They are good, that we know with a fair amount of certainty.
But whether they are good enough is much harder to establish.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer columnist for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.