PARIS – From the moment the draw for this Women’s World Cup was made, it became very clear that the United States’ path to the final could be significantly easier if it finished second in its group, rather than winning it.
The primary reason for that is host nation France — alongside the Americans, regarded as one of the best two teams in the tournament – with a swell of patriotic support behind it and perhaps the worthiest possible foe of all.
Yet if you thought for a moment that the U.S. had any temptation to land themselves in a softer portion of the knockout bracket, think again. During all of my interactions with the American team over the past month, from the pre-departure build-up in New York, to their training camp in London, and after both of their first two games in Group F, the message has been unanimous.
Winning is for winners. Losing deliberately, or not trying your hardest to win? Not an option. Not for these players.
“The U.S. is not scared of ANY opponent.” ?@MrogersFOX talked to the @USWNT about the prospect of facing France in the knockout stag … and they’re definitely not running scared. pic.twitter.com/GCp9qq4sfg
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) June 18, 2019
When I told Tobin Heath that the merits of placing first or second were a point of discussion back home, her response was so emphatic that she wouldn’t let me finish the question.
“People have spoken back home about is it better to finish first in your group of second,” I said, after Sunday’s 3-0 win against Chile. “Your team is all about …”
“Finishing first,” Heath interjected. “We don’t have any thoughts like that. We want to take each game – and win each game.”
Conspiracy theorists have been hard at work, speculating that a convenient defeat against Sweden in Le Havre on Thursday would enhance the U.S.’ chances of progressing deep into the tournament, potentially defending the title it won in 2015, and adding a fourth title to its historic haul. Given its glut of goals against Thailand, a draw against Sweden would still be enough to win the group.
The winning team in Group F will face Spain in the round of 16, followed by France in the quarterfinal – assuming the French survive their round of 16 clash.
Group F’s second-placed team would square off against either Canada or the Netherlands, followed by (probably) Germany. The Germans are two-time champions and no easy touch. The French, however, are stronger currently, and will be roared on by a passionate home audience each time they take the field.
So why wouldn’t the U.S. give themselves a bit of an easier ride?
“(Beating Sweden) is huge,” said defender Ali Krieger. “It makes a huge impact on the world to see that we are not messing around, we are here to win. We are here to win every game, to score as many goals as we can and to prove we are the best team in the world. Each game is the biggest game of our lives. That’s how we are taking it [moving] forward.”
While attempting to win matches might seem like the most obvious aim in sports, there is a precedent for tactical manipulations of the bracket in women’s soccer. At the 2012 Olympic Games, Japan coach Norio Sasaki made mass changes to his squad for the final group game, then admitted to instructing his players not to go for a winning goal against a weak South Africa line-up. The reason: Sasaki wanted his players to remain in Cardiff instead of facing a five-hour drive north to Glasgow (plus an earlier kickoff time) for their quarter-final. It worked. Japan reached the gold medal game, losing to the U.S.
For the U.S. women, that’s just not how things are done. Manufacturing a result to avoid a certain opponent sends a clear message – that you fear that opponent. The U.S. doesn’t fear anyone, France included.
The players have a simple reality in their minds. If you win every game and continue to do so, you win the tournament.
“That’s a difficult game to play,” forward Megan Rapinoe said during the London camp, when asked if the Americans would ever consider letting up for any reason. “That’s a very tricky thing to do. I don’t think we would even understand how to play that game.”
“And we are not going to,” teammate Crystal Dunn, sat beside her, added.
For the U.S. women, things are a little different than for other teams. There is a legacy of being not just dominant, but of being the gold standard that every other nation aspires to. Playing in a subpar fashion on purpose doesn’t exactly sit well with the message of empowerment this team tries to convey with everything it does.
Heading into Thursday, the commitment to success is even more resolute than ever.
There is no guarantee that they will beat Sweden, the same team that knocked them out of the 2016 Olympics. But if they don’t, it won’t be for a lack of trying.
Source: FOX Sport