The USWNT is the 2019 World Cup favorite. But first, it has to qualify

The U.S. women’s national team has won two unofficial tournaments in 2018. Now it has to finish in the top three at the CONCACAF championship to qualify for the 2019 World Cup. (Getty)
The U.S. women’s national team has won two unofficial tournaments in 2018. Now it has to finish in the top three at the CONCACAF championship to qualify for the 2019 World Cup. (Getty)

RALEIGH, N.C. — The last time a United States national soccer team attempted to qualify for a World Cup via matches against Mexico, Panama, and Trinidad and Tobago, the latter on Oct. 10 … well, you know the rest.

You know about Couva. About the tears. About the embarrassment.

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So does the team that will almost certainly avoid any déjà vu.

“We talk about the men’s team quite a bit,” U.S. women’s national team defender Becky Sauerbrunn said Tuesday, two days before the women begin their own trek toward soccer’s pinnacle. “When they didn’t qualify, for us, it was a huge loss for the country.” It is also, she said, “a reminder that you can’t take any team for granted.”

One day later at an upbeat news conference, U.S. head coach Jill Ellis echoed her veteran center back. The men’s failure, Ellis said, hasn’t been discussed recently, but “reaffirms” the message she’s been sending to her 20-woman squad since last week: “We’ve gotta earn the right to go on this journey.”

Their first proving ground is Sahlen’s Stadium in Cary, N.C. Their first test is Tuesday. And it’ll be administered by a familiar foe.

CONCACAF’s women’s World Cup qualifying format

CONCACAF women’s World Cup qualifying takes a different shape than the men’s competition. The region’s three direct invites to next summer’s tournament in France will be won over the next two weeks. A fourth will be available through an intercontinental playoff.

The CONCACAF women’s championship, as the event is formally known, features eight teams, split into two groups of four. After single round-robins, the top two teams in each group advance to a knockout round. The winners of the semifinals qualify. The losers meet with the third automatic qualification spot on the line. The loser of that third-place match gets a two-leg playoff vs. Argentina.

So, essentially, French hotels can be booked once the group stage is cleared. And that shouldn’t be a problem for a U.S. team riding a 21-game unbeaten streak. Three consecutive losses are unfathomable. But Thursday’s opener triggers cautionary memories.

The USWNT’s path to France

The U.S. women have played Mexico 36 times. They have lost just once. But the one defeat put them closer than ever before to a USMNT-esque failure. A famous qualifying upset in Cancun in 2010 sent the Americans to a playoff vs. Italy. They survived it. But they haven’t forgotten it.

“Alex [Morgan] is still scarred from that,” Ellis said Wednesday when asked about that stunner eight years ago.

Four of the 20 players currently in camp were part of that 2010 squad. It was Morgan’s first major tournament with the senior national team. “I talk to Jill a lot about it,” she said Wednesday. “We obviously don’t want to talk about it too much. But we don’t want the young players coming up and taking [qualification] for granted.”

Provided they don’t – and likely even if they do – the U.S. should have no trouble in a region that remains top-heavy, and in a group that includes two minnows. Here’s the USWNT’s schedule:

Thursday, Oct. 4 — vs. Mexico (7:30 ET, Fox Sports 2, Univision Deportes)
Sunday, Oct. 7 — vs. Panama (5 ET, Fox Sports 1, Univision Deportes)
Wednesday, Oct. 10 — vs. Trinidad and Tobago (7:30 ET, Fox Sports 2, Univision Deportes)

Those four nations comprise Group A. Group B consists of Canada, Costa Rica, Cuba and Jamaica.

If all goes to plan, the U.S. will win Group A; Canada will win Group B; the two North American giants will avoid each other in the semis, and the U.S. will cruise by Costa Rica or Jamaica to France. Other scenarios are in play, but unlikely. And for all the “earn it” talk emanating from the U.S. camp, qualification is virtually assured.

Just as intriguing, therefore, will be the performances behind the results.

What will we learn?

The USWNT is rolling. It won its two invitational tournaments in 2018, the SheBelieves Cup and the Tournament of Nations. It hasn’t lost since July 2017. It is mostly healthy. And it is deeeeep. Like, reserve-team-could-make-a-World-Cup-semifinal deep.

So there really aren’t many question marks. In the lineup projection below, only two spots – Tobin Heath’s on the right wing, and Rose Lavelle’s in the middle – are accompanied by any doubt. And they’re the subjects of the two personnel questions that could be answered this month. Julie Ertz and NWSL MVP Lindsey Horan look like sure-fire starters in midfield. But will Ellis experiment with Lavelle, and/or Sam Mewis, and/or Morgan Brian alongside them? Or will she pick one – most likely Lavelle – and stick with her?

Up front, is Heath firmly ahead of 20-year-old Mal Pugh at the moment? Or will Ellis give each a shot from the start?

Finally, there’s the supersub pecking order. Is Carli Lloyd still near the top of it if the U.S. finds itself in need of a second-half goal?

But alas, the U.S. likely won’t find itself in need of a second-half goal. High-leverage situations late in games could be non-existent. Frankly, we won’t learn much about the Americans’ World Cup readiness.

And that’s totally fine. The years since the team’s 2015 triumph have been rocky, but it is peaking at the right time. Ellis has settled on a 4-3-3 with a fluid, dynamic midfield and lethal front three. The U.S. is the best team in the world right now, and the favorite next summer. Arguments to the contrary are difficult to concoct.

Projected U.S. lineup

Projected U.S. starting lineup for the Mexico game and beyond (4-3-3): Alyssa Naeher; Kelley O’Hara, Abby Dahlkemper, Becky Sauerbrunn, Crystal Dunn; Julie Ertz, Lindsey Horan, Rose Lavelle; Tobin Heath, Alex Morgan (C), Megan Rapinoe.

Projected USWNT lineup and shape for World Cup qualifying opener vs. Mexico. (buildlineup.com)
Projected USWNT lineup and shape for World Cup qualifying opener vs. Mexico. (buildlineup.com)

The rest of the roster, in (estimated) order of impactful playing time likelihood: Mallory Pugh (F), Sam Mewis (M), Morgan Brian (M), Emily Sonnett (D), Christen Press (F), Carli Lloyd (F), Casey Short (D), Hailie Mace (D), Ashlyn Harris (G).

The two players not in camp most likely to break into the rotation over the next nine months are midfielder McCall Zerboni and center back Tierna Davidson, both of whom are missing out due to injury.

The 2019 World Cup qualification picture

Should the U.S. qualify, it will join a 24-team field that already has 15 attendees confirmed: France, the hosts; Australia, China, Japan, Thailand and South Korea from Asia; Brazil and Chile from South America; and Germany, England, Sweden, Norway, Italy, Spain and Scotland from Europe.

Three CONCACAF teams, plus a fourth or Argentina, will join those 15. So will three teams from Africa, one from Oceania (likely New Zealand), and the winner of the European playoffs (Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark or Switzerland).

The 2019 World Cup itself kicks off June 7 in Paris.

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Henry Bushnell is a features writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell, and on Facebook.

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