Every team, regardless of how talented or how deep, needs a few lucky breaks to win a title.
Six months before the World Cup kicks off in France, the U.S. women got their first one.
The defending champions have what looks to be the easiest path through the group stage of all the contenders, drawing Thailand and Chile on Saturday as their first two opponents. Thailand, ranked 29th, won one game and gave up 10 goals in its first World Cup appearance in 2015. Chile, ranked 38th, will be making its World Cup debut.
Yes, the Americans also got their old frenemy Sweden. Of course they did. It might as well be a rule that the U.S. women face Sweden in group play at the World Cup, with France making it five consecutive tournaments the two have been drawn together.
But even that game, or at least its timing, is beneficial for the Americans.
The U.S. will likely already be into the knockout rounds when it faces Sweden on June 20 in the final group game. The one other time the Americans faced Thailand, in 2016, it was a 9-0 thrashing, with three goals and four assists by Carli Lloyd. In their first two games against Chile, earlier this fall, the United States scored seven goals and gave up none.
But instead of going through the motions for the final group game, which could cost them some of their edge as they go into win-or-go-home games, the Americans will have to be laser-focused for Sweden. No problem, given this is the same team that stunned the United States in the quarterfinals of the Rio Olympics.
The loss, on penalties, was the U.S. women’s earliest exit ever in a major tournament.
“Obviously Sweden there, for sure, especially after the last Olympics,” midfielder Tobin Heath said on Fox Sports when asked what about Group F stood out to her.
Sweden, with its defensive-minded style, is also a good opponent to have before the knockout rounds, coach Jill Ellis said.
“Sweden is a good matchup for us in terms of probably anticipating a team that’s going to maybe slow the pace a little and sit back,” she said.
While Ellis downplayed the group’s difficulty, or its lack of it, she was happy with the draw because of when it has the Americans playing their games and where.
The tournament begins June 7 with host France playing South Korea in Paris, and the United States won’t have its first game until four days later. The Americans play Thailand in June 11 in Reims, face Chile on June 16 in Paris, and wrap up the group stage June 20 in Le Havre.
That means the Americans will spend the first two weeks of the World Cup within a two-hour radius of Paris. If things play to form, the U.S. women wouldn’t leave northern France until the semifinals, which, along with the July 7 final, are in Lyon.
Compare that with, say England, which plays its opener against Scotland in Nice in the south of France, heads to Le Havre on the northwest coast of the country for its second game, then returns to Nice for its final group game against Japan, a rematch of the 2015 semifinal.
If England wins its group, its first knockout game would be in Valenciennes, which is on the border with Belgium.
“Tournaments like this, you want every possible advantage you can get,” Ellis said. “Not having to move and fly is potentially a good thing.”
Not just for the players. The Americans bring a healthy group of supporters wherever they go – Vancouver might as well have been Seattle North in 2015 — but the compact schedule makes it even easier on U.S. fans thinking of going to France.
“It’s two hours on the train,” Ellis said. “Our fans can get there and don’t have to travel all over France.”
The Americans will be heavy favorites to win their fourth World Cup. They haven’t lost a game in more than a year – July 27, 2017, to be exact – and are so deep some players who will never leave the bench would start for any other country.
But women’s soccer continues to get stronger, and the list of teams with legitimate title hopes longer, with every tournament.
“A lot of things have to fall in place,” Ellis said.
Including luck which, so far, is on the Americans’ side.