Is the U.S. a clear favorite at the 2019 Women's World Cup?

Henry Bushnell: Friends! It’s been a while. Almost a year, in fact. But just in time for the 2019 Women’s World Cup, the Yahoo Soccer Mixer is back.

We’ve covered the tournament and the USWNT plenty already. But I felt compelled to reinvent the Mixer for one reason, and one reason only: I think we – as a Yahoo Soccer staff, and as an American soccer media collective – are being far too pessimistic with respect to the U.S. and its chances in France this summer.

From my not-expert-but-thoroughly-educated perspective, the Yanks are pretty clearly the best team in the world. They’re only slightly less clearly the World Cup favorite. And all the hand-wringing over Jill Ellis’ tinkering and faulty tactics and bunker-breaking difficulties is waaaaay overblown.

What’s more, I feel pretty confident I can refute any argument to the contrary. So I invite you to fire away with your reasons to worry. (Or with your reverential acknowledgements that I’m right. But that would be boring. So please, convince me to doubt my own confidence.)

Doug McIntyre: I sort of pride myself on being an optimist, both in life and in soccer. And I completely agree that by just about any measure, the USWNT is and deserves to be the odds-on favorite to repeat this summer. They’re absolutely the best team in the tournament. Coach Jill Ellis cut players who’d be starting for other contenders. Hell, she has the likes of Carli Lloyd and Christen Press coming off the bench. None of it means a thing.

HARRISON, NJ - MAY 26:  United States of America midfielder Tobin Heath (17) celebrates after scoring during the first half of the Womens soccer game between the United States of America versus Mexico Womens Soccer game at Red Bull Arena on May 26, 2019 in Harrison, NJ.  (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
The USWNT's forward line of Alex Morgan, Tobin Heath and Megan Rapinoe makes them a World Cup favorite. (Getty)

Look, things rarely go how we think they will in sports. As often as not, the best team doesn’t finish on top of the podium for any number of reasons. The USWNT was probably also the deepest and most talented team at the 1995, 2003, 2007 and 2011 World Cups (not to mention the 2000 and 2016 Olympics) and they didn’t win any of those tournaments. Plus, it’s really hard to win back-to-back World Cups. There’s a reason why it’s only happened twice on the men’s side and once on the women’s. So, sure, the U.S. has the best chance out of the 24 participants to hoist the hardware. But do I take the Americans over the entire field in France? That’s a much tougher question to answer.

Then you consider that Ellis’ team hasn’t performed at its best in the months leading up to the World Cup. You add in the fact that the U.S. is on a collision course with the host nation long before the final – the U.S. and France will meet in the quarters if both squads top their groups, as expected – and I think it’s reasonable to have some doubt.

Les Bleus are widely regarded as the second-best team in the world. Athletically, they present a matchup nightmare for the Americans, relatively speaking. They’ll obviously be playing in front of their own fans. And after beating the U.S. 3-1 in January, they will not fear the Yanks. It would be a shame in some ways if that do-or-die match happens so early. If it does, though, I see the victor riding that momentum all the way to the title. Just don’t be shocked if it’s not the U.S. this time around.

Leander Schaerlaeckens: Hi again. It’s me, the unpopular-opinion-haver. I’m not at all convinced of the USA’s invincibility in France. It’s easy to look at your national team with rose-tinted glasses ahead of a World Cup. Just as it’s easy to see a contender in just about any baseball team during Spring Training, if you squint hard enough.

Is this team talented? Absolutely. Deep? Oh yeah. The best version of the national team ever? Probably not. But all the same, the U.S. is one of the favorites. The talent up front and in the midfield is staggering. But look for them, and you’ll find plenty of weaknesses as well. The U.S. no longer has a goalkeeper who will paper over mistakes in the back. The defense isn’t entirely convincing. The full-back positions are thin and staffed by players who don’t play there for their clubs. The best center back from the last World Cup, Julie Ertz, has been moved into midfield and Becky Sauerbrunn can be exposed for her lack of speed.

FRISCO, TX - OCTOBER 17: USA midfielder Julie Ertz (8) , USA defender Kelley O'Hara (5), USA goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher (1), USA defender Abby Dahlkemper (7), USA defender Becky Sauerbrunn (4) and USA defender Casey Short (14) look on during the final match of the CONCACAF Women's Championship between USA and Canada on October 17, 2018 at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, TX. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
The U.S. defense is strong but not impenetrable. (Getty)

Meanwhile, France and Germany have stupefyingly good forward lines, backed by heavyweight midfields. Both of these teams can give the U.S. defense fits. And it only takes one bad day when the shots won’t hit the net to go crashing out in any of the four knockout games you need to win to defend the World Cup.

This is why it’s so hard to repeat as winners. Everything has to go right. Twice. And there are enough question marks there for me to feel that the French and Germans have as good a chance as the Americans, if not better.

Henry Bushnell: Alright, a couple points to push back on.

But first, let me clear: I agree with the vast majority of Doug’s first two paragraphs. Of course I wouldn’t take the U.S. over the field. Taking any World Cup team, ever, over the field would be loco. I’m by no means saying a repeat is automatic. Single-elimination tournaments inherently introduce more randomness than we realize.

And that’s why it’s “hard to repeat.” Not because it’s particularly difficult for a defending champion to win a World Cup, but because it’s difficult for anybody to win a World Cup. There have been six opportunities for repeats at Women’s World Cups. Probabilistically, based on the number of true contenders in a given year, 1-in-6 is about what you’d expect. And as I discussed after Germany’s flameout last summer, the idea of a team “repeating” some 1,400 days after winning the first time around is somewhat silly, simply because four years is a long time.

But I absolutely think the U.S. is more likely than any other individual team to win this thing. And I’m not sure why we’re so convinced the French are a “matchup nightmare.” The U.S. has never played them with more than six of the 11 who’ll be first-choice starters this month. France is great, but what makes us think the U.S. wouldn’t be a definitive, though perhaps not heavy, favorite in that quarterfinal?

Joey Gulino: So much, at least for me. France’s strengths almost seem engineered to either exploit or stonewall the United States’ strengths. The Americans are incredible in the attack? Central defender Wendie Renard and goalkeeper Sarah Bouhaddi are among the best in the world at their positions. The playmaking might have to come more centrally? Too bad Amandine Henry is there to clog everything up. The fullbacks are a question mark? Eugénie Le Sommer will be doing the asking. And that’s not something I’d find comfortable.

AUXERRE, FRANCE - APRIL 4: Eugenie Le Sommer of France celebrates her goal with Gaetane Thiney, Wendie Renard during the international friendly match between France and Japan at Stade de L'Abbe-Deschamps on April 4, 2019 in Auxerre, France. (Photo by Jean Catuffe/Getty Images)
Eugenie Le Sommer (second from left) and Wendie Renard (right) could pose problems for the U.S. in a potential World Cup quarterfinal. (Getty)

This isn’t a new challenge the French are presenting, either. They hammered the U.S. in that January friendly, and drew the U.S. in the SheBelieves Cup last year, and gummed up the 2016 Olympic meeting, admittedly a narrow loss. So whoever’s been in the Americans’ lineup, France has had answers.

They’re playing in front of their own country, too. The home soil boost hasn’t been as pronounced in Women’s World Cups as the men’s – only once, in 1999, has the host nation ever won it, and we’re already 16 years removed from the last time a host even made the semifinals – but this feels different. As much as I hate to say it as an American, it feels like the USWNT is walking into a giant exclamation point on the sentence about the rest of the world catching up.

There are concerns with that take, like pressure and Le Sommer’s health and (yes) the USWNT’s overwhelming talent, but I really think the French women do what the men did last summer.

Henry Bushnell: I like that this has evolved into a “U.S. vs. France” debate. Because, deep down, that’s how some USWNT players see it. Ask in public about top challengers, and they’ll give you the ol’ “we’re focused on Thailand.” But they’re boldfaced liars if they tell you they aren’t aware of the quarterfinal collision course. And, if you listen closely, they’re already playing mind games.

Here’s Megan Rapinoe, on Wednesday, speaking about France: “I consider them the favorites, and I feel like all the pressure is on them."

And Lindsey Horan, at media day two weeks ago: “I think they do have a little bit of pressure on their back playing at home. … And they’ve gotten so much better these past few years. It’s kind of a mentality thing for them.”

And honestly? That, more than any of your misguided arguments, gives me a bit of pause. Not because Megan Rapinoe thinks France is the favorite – I don’t think she actually believes that. But because mind games shouldn’t be necessary. All they do is lend to the idea that this French team is in the Americans’ heads a bit.

But none of the matchup chatter scares me. It’s so selective and non-specific. The biggest individual mismatch, to be honest, is U.S. wingers vs. French fullbacks.

And by the way, the home-turf advantage argument? I’d bet on move American fans being at the Parc des Princes on June 28 than French fans. The U.S contingent is going to blow us away. And there just aren’t too many reasons to think the USWNT won’t blow away the field just the same.

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