The Washington Post Sunday

U.S. women receive friendly draw on road to World Cup defense

- BY STEVEN GOFF steven.goff@washpost.com

Six months from the start of the Women’s World Cup, the reigning champion U.S. national soccer team received favorable bounces Saturday when balls were selected from glass bowls at the FIFA draw outside Paris.

Aside from yet another meeting with frenemy Sweden, the top-ranked Americans were placed atop Group F with two lightweigh­t opponents, Thailand and Chile.

Because the Sweden showdown is last, Coach Jill Ellis’s squad will know in advance whether it will need a victory or draw to win the group.

The geography was also good news for U.S. fans, who are expected to flock to France by the thousands for what they hope will be a fourth trophy celebratio­n.

All three U.S. first-round matches will be played in northern France, either in Paris or within a short distance. By topping the group, the Americans would play in Reims for the second time. And a potential quarterfin­al against No. 3 France would take place in Paris. That massive pairing would fall earlier than expected in the knockout stage.

The semifinals and final will be held in Lyon, a 21/2-hour train ride from the capital.

“There is no easy path,” Ellis said. However, “I feel good about the order of the games, feel good about the logistics of the group in terms of where we are and travel in between, and the fact we start later in the tournament [on its fifth day]. All of those things are positive.

“The masterstro­ke here is we have got to execute.”

The Americans will open June 11 against No. 29 Thailand in Reims, then play No. 38 Chile five days later at Parc des Princes in Paris. The match with No. 9 Sweden will be June 20 in Le Havre.

The only previous game with the Thais, in 2016, resulted in a 9-0 victory. In the first meetings with the Chileans, this fall at California venues, the outcomes were 3-0 and 4-0 victories.

Thailand made its World Cup debut in 2015. Chile qualified for the first time this fall.

Unfamiliar­ity with those teams contrasts with fellowship with Sweden as they clash for the fifth consecutiv­e World Cup. The teams also met in the 2016 Olympic quarterfin­als, a penalty-kick victory by the defensive-minded Swedes.

Before the draw, Swedish reporters asked Ellis about the potential of facing Sweden again.

“Oh, we will,” Ellis said she responded.

“At last, I am prophetic about something.”

Although the Americans lead the all-time series 21-6-11, Sweden has almost always been competitiv­e and, in the group stage of the previous two World Cups, it earned a 0-0 draw in 2015 and a 2-1 victory in 2011.

The tournament will commence June 7 in Paris with France facing South Korea. The top seeds are the United States, Germany, France, England, Canada and Australia.

Unbeaten in 28 matches since July 2017, the Americans will have to accept the role of favorites, whether they like it or not.

“I would never put ‘favorites’ on us, but we do hold ourselves in a very high standard and expectatio­n,” defender Kelley O’Hara said. “Yeah, we want to win. Who doesn’t want to win the World Cup? Being the defending champions, I absolutely want to go back to back.”

The U.S. team will begin preparatio­ns next month with difficult friendlies at France and No. 12 Spain. It will then play eight consecutiv­e home games leading up to the World Cup, including assignment­s against No. 8 Japan, No. 4 England, No. 10 Brazil and No. 6 Australia.

“It’s so different than it was even two World Cups ago in terms of the depth and talent,” Ellis said of the true contenders. “Someone asked if this is going to be the hardest World Cup to win. I kind of said that last time. Every World Cup should be better than the one before — bigger in terms of media and quality of teams. It’s going to be a spectacula­r World Cup.”

 ?? CHRISTOPHE ENA/ASSOCIATED PRESS ?? “There is no easy path,” said Coach Jill Ellis, right, as her team preps for Thailand, Chile and Sweden.
CHRISTOPHE ENA/ASSOCIATED PRESS “There is no easy path,” said Coach Jill Ellis, right, as her team preps for Thailand, Chile and Sweden.

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