There are, at most, four games left in the U.S. women’s national team’s 2019 World Cup, but we’ve seen enough to go ahead and call it: This is the best U.S. women’s national team ever.
Not just for what it did to Thailand, Chile, and Sweden in the group stage—outscoring its three opponents 18–0, outshooting them 82–10—but for what it looked capable of doing to them. Head coach Jill Ellis has stocked her team with the most skillful, most multifaceted attacking talents in the program’s history, and their successful integration into a team that still looks balanced on the field has the U.S. capable of reaching new heights.
The knock against the U.S. during its fallow period—it went three whole World Cups without winning from 2003 to 2011—was an overreliance on athleticism. In 1999, when the U.S. rode set-piece dominance and opportunistic finishing off opponent’s mistakes to win the tournament, its players were more athletic, but also more technically gifted than their peers. It was only in the 2000s that some of the world’s other top teams began to outplay the Americans with the ball, and the U.S. failed to adapt to that new world.
The 2003 team couldn’t outmuscle a stout German defense. The 2007 edition couldn’t stand up to Brazilian pressure. The 2011 squad couldn’t protect two different leads against Japan. These were good teams—the Americans finished at least third in each World Cup—but they lacked a Plan B when they encountered a team they couldn’t overpower. They didn’t seem to trust the idea of a creative player. An athlete is always athletic and a grinder will always grind, but there are some days when, like in any creative profession, nothing seems to come off right. Better to stick to reliable force than unpredictable flair, the U.S. seemed to say.
The 2019 team has more flair than a Chotchkie’s server. No American side has ever fielded three players as casually devastating as Megan Rapinoe, Tobin Heath, and Rose Lavelle. Each member of the Americans’ creative trio seems to step onto the pitch with the goal of creating a new and amazing way to bypass defenders. If one of them has an off night, so what? You’ve got two more players pulling that part of the burden, and more on the bench who can each bend the defense in a different way.
This transition was already underway at the 2015 World Cup. Rapinoe and Heath both started the tournament final against Japan, but in more reserved roles, wide midfielders rather than wingers. The team sputtered through the group stage, seemingly unsure of whether to continue directing its offense through the head of Abby Wambach or keep it on the ground and let the likes of Rapinoe and do-everything midfielder Lauren Holiday dictate play. In the end, the team found its balance by pushing Carli Lloyd up the field and turning itself into a support system for her finishing ability.
But no American team, including the 2015 champions, has supplied its attackers with an infrastructure as capable of delivering the ball to them in dangerous positions as Lindsey Horan, Sam Mewis, Crystal Dunn, and Kelley O’Hara. Dunn and O’Hara toggle between both sets, racing down the sideline to overlap their wingers some of the time but more often sliding in midfield on either side of the defensive midfielder to help keep possession and, against Sweden, divert the press. That led to Mewis finding great tracts of space throughout much of the first half from which to deliver pinpoint passes to the likes of Heath and Alex Morgan. Horan has played every spot in midfield and affected games all the way up and down the pitch, dropping between the center backs one minute and appearing next to Morgan in the other box the next.
If this team has a weakness, it’s supposed to be in defense. The 2015 axis of Hope Solo, Julie Ertz, and Becky Sauerbrunn inspires more confidence on paper than Alyssa Naeher, Abby Dahlkemper, and 2019 Sauerbrunn. Both Solo and Sauerbrunn were the best players in the world at their respective positions in 2015, and that’s probably not true for Naeher and current Sauerbrunn.
But the 2019 squad has been brutally effective at getting pressure to the ball early and limiting its opponent’s options. Lavelle has been a more effective midfield bulwark than anticipated. Heath is so active defensively that Ellis tipped her as a potential backup at left back (which gave some U.S. fans palpitations). The defense isn’t just the named defenders, but the entire team. Ellis is getting the best of both worlds out of her creative players. The result has been the most complete, most dominating U.S. squad in history.
And yet, despite all this, it still might not win this tournament.
Both things can be true. Knockout tournaments are a fickle means of deciding athletic supremacy. An in-form goalkeeper, an unfortunate deflection, the capricious whim of our new virtual assistant referee overlord—any number of things can sabotage a team’s run. The Americans created chances at will against Sweden, but both Morgan and Lloyd struggled to finish them. Should that problem repeat itself, no amount of prior dominance will save the U.S. It can’t cash in the goals it banked against Thailand. It’s going to need to score in the knockout rounds as well.
To win the World Cup, the U.S. will need to beat, in a worst-case scenario:
• The best Spain team ever, with a roster full of possession magicians, many of whom made the Champions League final with Barcelona this season.
• The best France team ever, who have host-nation advantage and a core drawn from the Olympique Lyonnais team that beat Barcelona 4–1 in that final.
• The best England team ever, which has already beaten Japan twice and Brazil once this year and drew the U.S. in March.
• Maybe-not-quite-the-best German team ever—the 2007 squad conceded zero goals all tournament, which, wow. But if it should meet the U.S. in the final, it will have perhaps beaten the best Italy or the best Netherlands team ever on its way.
Everyone in the world is getting better. Ellis has spent the past three years catalyzing her team’s evolution, trying to keep it one step ahead of what the world can throw at it. Her plan seems to have worked. If the U.S. runs the gauntlet that awaits it in the knockout stage, it will leave no doubt. But even if it doesn’t, this team should still go down in history.