Shaky defenders and France's threat: our writers' US World Cup predictions

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Caitlin Murray, Gemma Clarke, Shireen Ahmed and Beau Dure
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<span>Photograph: Colin E Braley/AP</span>
Photograph: Colin E Braley/AP

USWNT’s key player is …

Julie Ertz. No one else in the squad offers the same physical disruption in central midfield, and the USWNT’s defense, which has looked shaky, needs all the cover it can get. Her scoring ability on set pieces could also be the difference. CM

Tempted to say Lindsey Horan but I’m going to go with Becky Sauerbrunn. She’s rightfully described as the soul of the team, and they’ll need her experience and steadying influence both on- and off-the-field. At her best, she can bring calm and composure to a young defense, the rest of whom haven’t competed in a World Cup before, barring Ali Krieger. GC

Megan Rapinoe. She is a key playmaker, is lethal on set plays, and has an unapologetic drive and energy that fuels her teammates. She has played with some of the top players in the world, and her experience gives her the ability to read the game and act accordingly. ‘Pinoe’ also often acts as the moral compass of this team. And that makes her even more powerful. SA

Becky Sauerbrunn. The old joke about Roberto Carlos – that left-back wasn’t his address but the place he could be found in case of emergency – applies to both full-backs. Aside from them, the only defender who has played in a major tournament is surprise call-up Ali Krieger. Sauerbrunn, criminally omitted from 2015 post-Cup honors, will need to be the cornerstone at the back once again. BD

Unheralded USWNT player to watch …

There isn’t much attention on Rose Lavelle because this is her first major tournament. But her creativity in midfield could be crucial if the USWNT’s usual approach from the flanks is unsuccessful. Lavelle is the only playmaking No10 on the roster who can pull the strings in the attack. CM

It’s hard to pick an unheralded player in a team of all-stars so I’m going to go with somebody who is currently unheralded in Carli Lloyd. She’s going into this tournament as a sub due to her age but she’s incredibly focused, hard-working and still has the capacity to come on and change a game with a moment of brilliance. GC

Jessica McDonald. The US have notable talent up front (Alex Morgan and Tobin Heath) but McDonald has a point to make. She is bold, and I love that. She’s the only mother on this squad, and has worked relentlessly to get better, and be noticed. She brings a confidence to the pitch that tells us she has nothing to lose. She is ready. SA

Rose Lavelle. The US have never been known for playmaking midfielders, but they have one now. In the NWSL, where wily veterans typically humble incoming draftees, Lavelle was a rare immediate-impact rookie before injury trouble struck. If the USA face a bunker, as they did in the fateful 2016 Olympics loss to Sweden, she’ll be the key to unlocking it. BD

USWNT’s biggest weakness

Defense, defense, defense. When the USWNT have faced teams ranked in the world top 10 this year, they have conceded multiple goals on all but one occasion. The USWNT attack is potent, but the forwards will have to work extra hard to make up for all the goals the USWNT looks poised to concede. CM

At the back. The defense has looked a little shaky at times, particularly against other big teams. It doesn’t seem like they’ve quite gelled and I think part of that is a lack of experience. On top of that, Briana Scurry and Hope Solo set an incredibly high bar in goal and Alyssa Naeher will need to keep a cool head and put in some great performances to reassure the players around her. GC

Overconfidence. The USWNT have a tendency to hold to notions of what they were, not what they are. They are not the youngest team out there, and did not perform well at the SheBelieves Cup earlier this year. I am pleased they have huge support from their fans but that doesn’t always lend itself to humility. SA

Depth at the back. The puzzling roster decision wasn’t Ali Krieger over Casey Short, a capable left-back. It was Jessica McDonald, a seventh forward, over Short, who could give Crystal Dunn a break or a chance to play in the attack. Meanwhile, in goal, starter Alyssa Naeher has been shaky this year, and third-stringer Adrianna Franch didn’t make her debut until March. BD

The biggest threat to the US …

The US are set to play a dangerous France team in the quarter-finals
The US are set to play a dangerous France team in the quarter-finals. Photograph: Alex Grimm/Bongarts/Getty Images

France. The host country have a supremely talented group and are widely considered the favorite of this tournament. Unfortunately for the USWNT, the draw has put the Americans on a collision course to face France in the quarter-finals, which could spell the USA’s earliest exit in a World Cup. CM

France. They carved the USWNT apart in the pre-tournament friendly, they’re on home soil and look extremely dangerous. What they lack in experience, they make up for in fluid, dynamic attacking play. They’re a team who can sit back and soak up the pressure, then produce clinical finishes on the break. GC

There are plenty of threats out there. This year they have been beaten by France and faced tough battles against England, Australia and Japan. They also rely heavily on physicality and not necessarily technical skill. SA

The cruelty of the World Cup draw is that the USA will likely face bona fide contender France in the quarter-finals. The hosts routed the USA (admittedly rusty in the NWSL offseason) in January, and they have a strong mix of experience and youth. BD

One bold prediction

There’s no good reason to think Spain will make a run in this World Cup. They only qualified for the first time in 2015 and were knocked out in the group stage. And conventional wisdom says they lack necessary depth. But World Cups are for chaos and what Spain lack in talent they may make up for in having an identity. Plus, keep an eye on goalscorer Jenni Hermoso. CM

This is very bold, but I think Thailand may hold the USWNT to a draw in their opening fixture. They held Australia to a shock draw in the semi-finals of the Asia Cup last year, only to lose on penalties. It’s a huge tournament, all eyes are on the reigning champions and all that scrutiny could cause an upset in their opening game. If the forwards aren’t on their game and they don’t score early, the pressure of the occasion could produce a shock. Unlikely, but possible. GC

Despite their opening loss to Italy, Australia will get to the final, because Sam Kerr is flanked by a squad that often gets unnoticed as they toil Down Under. SA

The ticket fiasco is the last domino to fall for Fifa. Western Europe, North America and a few South American and Asian countries form their own soccer federation, and we endure a decade of dueling international organizers before everything is resolved. Hey, it worked for chess, more or less. BD

Will the USWNT’s gender discrimination lawsuit affect their campaign?

If the USWNT falter in this World Cup, it will be because women’s soccer is more competitive than ever before. What I learned in researching and writing my book on the USWNT, is that they have been in these sorts of off-field battles continuously over the years. In the past it just happened a lot more privately. CM

If they don’t win, it’s what some lazy pundits will suggest but no. The battle between the USWNT and US Soccer for fair pay has been ongoing for decades, just in different forms. Now it’s a legal matter. That US Soccer continues to undervalue and undermine its most successful team is an embarrassment. There’s no loophole or pernickety justifications of pay structure that can justify this persistent inequality. GC

Much to their credit, the USWNT have been champions despite the incompetence of US Soccer. There is a part of me – albeit, as a Canadian, a very small part – that hopes they win everything to spite the people who will not give them proper remuneration. These women deserve everything that America can give them. SA

Not at all. The team’s veteran leadership, especially US Soccer Athletes’ Council member Sauerbrunn, won’t let that happen. BD

USWNT’s campaign will end with ...

The realistic expectation is that the US should make it to the semi-finals, because that has always been the standard. But after years of asking whether the world has caught up to the USWNT, I think this could be the year we finally see it happen and the US exit in the quarter-final, which would be their worst World Cup ever. CM

Defeat in the semi-finals. Possibly to a heartbreaking, last-minute goal or a questionable refereeing decision. I feel like the USWNT have benefitted from some of those over the years and the football gods tend to exact their revenge every once in a while. GC

They’ll ease through their group but the reigning champions will not advance beyond the quarter finals. The competition is very, very tough. Which makes this the most exciting World Cup yet. SA

Misguided takes from US pundits who pay attention only when the spotlight is on. Depending on results, that could be “Why didn’t they take Hope Solo?” or “When will Congress intervene?” Or maybe “They won, so why won’t they get paid more,” not realizing that they will. We don’t know all the CBA details, but winning matters.

Oh, and they’ll win it. They’ll get past France in extra-time, beat England 3-2 in the semi-finals and take the final 4-1 over Australia, who won’t be able to build on the momentum of ousting Germany in the semis. BD