REIMS, France — It had been drizzling for most of the day in this small city about 90 miles northeast of Paris when the United States women’s national team took the field at Stade Auguste-Delaune for one final walk-though after nearly three years of preparation. Then, as if on cue, the clouds parted and the 21,000-seat venue was bathed in beautiful early-summer sunlight.
The stage will be even brighter on Tuesday at 9 p.m local time, when the USWNT can finally begin to defend the World Cup crown it won four years ago in Canada. After losing its Olympic title in 2016, the chance to prove itself again at a major tournament has been a long time coming for the defending champs.
A scheduling quirk forced them to wait some more even after they arrived in France. By the time the Americans kick off against Thailand (3 p.m. ET, Fox), every other team in the competition will have already played its World Cup opener.
“When the tournament kicks off and you watch the games, the anticipation for the first match grows,” U.S. coach Jill Ellis said Monday during a jam-packed news conference. “The players are ready, excited, hungry. I think we feel prepared. I think the players that we selected and the preparations and the training have been excellent.”
The overwhelming majority of reporters in attendance at Monday’s presser were representing U.S. media outlets, a turnout reflective of the snowballing interest in this event and in America’s favorite team in particular. All three U.S. group-stage games — including Sunday’s match against Chile at 48,000-seat Parc des Princes in the capital — are already sold out. And those traveling fans expect nothing less than for captain Alex Morgan and company to repeat as champs, which is something they’ve never done.
”This team has always had high pressure, especially in big tournaments,” Morgan said Monday. “That’s for a reason: we have a rich history of success within this program.”
She’s right. The United States has dominated the global game for the better part of 30 years. They’ve won three World Cups; Germany is the only other nation with more than one.
But maintaining continued excellence is becoming more difficult as the gospel of women’s soccer grows. Not only is this easily the deepest Women’s World Cup since the event began in 1991, the U.S. could end up facing France in the quarterfinals. Les Bleues demolished South Korea last week and are clearly building momentum. Despite the Americans’ No. 1 FIFA ranking, many see the French as favorites on home soil.
That potential final-worthy encounter between the U.S. and France has been a talking point since December’s draw, and it now leaves Ellis with major questions to answer. How much will she rotate her squad through the first round?
If the U.S. has already advanced heading into the group decider against Sweden, as expected, will she rest her starters and “risk” missing out on the top spot (and that possible meeting with the hosts)?
Would doing that kill the team’s momentum heading into the Round of 16?
Ellis insisted that while she’s considered different scenarios, there’s also danger in overthinking.
“You can’t get beyond the first game because – and I’ve said this to players myself – there’s so many twists and turns,” she said. “To get too far ahead I think can be problematic in terms of looking beyond what’s in front of you. I think you have to approach it that way, because there’s so many unknowns out there.”
“Right now,” Morgan added, “We haven’t talked about any opponent other than Thailand.”
Nonetheless, the U.S. is expected to trounce its first foe. In their lone meeting back in 2016, the Americans beat Thailand 9-0. And while the games will get progressively more difficult from there, the champs seem intent on embracing the journey
That sunny outlook should help if the storm clouds gather again somewhere along the way. “This team is united in a way that I’ve never seen before,” said Morgan, who is set to play in her third World Cup. “This team,” she added, “is ready to go.”
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