The United States is the defending Women’s World Cup champion and the No. 1-ranked team in the world. But it is not guaranteed a place in next year’s Cup, and though the scenario is unlikely, it could theoretically be eliminated from the tournament months before it begins if things go badly in a regional qualifying tournament over the next two weeks.
Three spots in the 2019 World Cup in France will be on the line when the Concacaf championship tournament begins Thursday in North Carolina and Texas, and the United States — the region’s best team for more than a generation — is almost certain to claim one of them. But after the American men lost to Trinidad and Tobago last year and missed out on the World Cup in Russia, the women’s team will be taking no chances.
In the group stage, the United States is in a four-team group based in Cary, N.C., joined by Mexico, Panama and (gulp) Trinidad and Tobago. (The Americans opened with a 6-0 victory over Mexico on Thursday night, with two goals each from Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan.) The top two teams from that group and from another group headlined by favored Canada in the Texas border city of Edinburg, will advance to the semifinals. The third- and fourth-place teams are eliminated.
All nerves aside, winning the group would seem to be a straightforward task for the Americans: The other teams are currently ranked 24th, 52nd and 66th in the world. The United States cruised against Mexico on Thursday, following up 4-1 and 6-2 victories in April, and its last two games against Trinidad in 2015 and 2016 were 5-0 and 6-0 wins. The United States is 11-0-2 against all opponents in 2018, and has not lost since July 2017.
A top-two place in the group does not lock up a World Cup berth, but it’s close. The teams that advance will contest a final four playoff on Oct. 14 and 17 in Frisco, Tex., where the two finalists and the winner of the third-place game will all book their places in France.
Even if disaster strikes, though, and the United States somehow loses to, say, Canada and Jamaica to finish fourth, there is still a fail-safe: The fourth-place team gets a last chance to make the Cup by winning a home-and-home series in November against Argentina.
The United States women have won the Concacaf championship seven of the eight times they have played in it. (The Americans skipped the tournament in 1999, as they qualified automatically for that World Cup as the host nation.) The team’s only failure came in 2010, when it lost to Canada in the semifinals but still placed third. It has played in every women’s World Cup, never placing lower than third.
In its final two opening round games, the United States will play Panama on Sunday (5 p.m., Fox Sports 1) and Trinidad next Wednesday (7:30 p.m., FS2).
The American team assembled for the qualifying matches is certainly not short of experience: 10 members of the 20-player squad were on the 2015 World Cup-winning team, and seven — Kelley O’Hara, Becky Sauerbrunn, Tobin Heath, Morgan, Christen Press, Rapinoe and Carli Lloyd — have more than 100 appearances for the national team.
“The group that we have assembled here is crazy talented at every position and very deep,” Rapinoe said.
Despite the 2015 World Cup title, the United States is coming off a disappointment in its last major event, the 2016 Olympics, where it was eliminated on penalties in the quarterfinals by Sweden.
Should it accomplish its task this month and qualify for the 24-team World Cup next summer, the United States will be challenged there by a strong European contingent that includes host France; the reigning Olympic gold medalist, Germany; Sweden; the Netherlands; and England. Also in the mix will be Canada, Japan, Brazil and Australia, which was the last team to beat the United States.