When qualifying for the 2019 Women’s World Cup opens Thursday night in Sahlen’s Stadium at WakeMed Soccer Park, history -- both recent and time-honored -- will heavily favor the United States.
Ranked No. 1 in the world, the U.S. will host play in CONCACAF’s Group A, whose next highest ranked team, No. 24 Mexico, will play the U.S. at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, following a 5 p.m. match between No. 52 Trinidad and Tobago and No. 66 Panama.
Group B gets underway Friday in Edinburg, Texas, where No. 5 Canada, No. 34 Costa Rica, No. 64 Jamaica, and No. 88 Cuba are drawn into the field.
The U.S. returns to action at 5 p.m. Sunday against Panama and at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday against Trinidad and Tobago.
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The top two teams from each group after round-robin play advance to Frisco, Texas, for the semifinal, championship and third-place matches Oct. 14-17.
The two finalists and third-place team automatically earn berths into the 24-team World Cup next June in France. The fourth-place team will meet Argentina, the third-place team in South America, in a two-game playoff with another World Cup placement at stake.
“We’re delighted to be back in Cary,” U.S. coach Jill Ellis said at a news conference Wednesday evening. Ellis brought the national team here for a friendly against South Korea in October 2017. “We’re just very excited to begin the tournament. It seems like we’ve been waiting a long time. These are the most important games we’ve played in two years.”
The U.S. is the overwhelming favorite to win its group and eventually advance to the World Cup. The Americans own a 27-1-0 record in World Cup qualifying matches and have won the CONCACAF tournament five times in six tries. In addition, the U.S. is 13-0-0 at home in qualifying and owns a 7-0-0 record all-time at WakeMed, which is hosting qualifying for the first time. The U.S. has played Mexico twice this year, winning 4-1 and 6-2 over a four-day span in April.
Need recent history? How about this: The U.S. owns a current unbeaten streak of 21 matches. Following the 2015 World Cup triumph in Canada, the third World Cup championship for the U.S., Ellis began overhauling her roster for next year’s World Cup. After some early false steps, the Americans haven’t lost since a 1-0 defeat by Australia on July 27, 2017, in the opening round of the Tournament of Nations in Seattle, compiling an 18-0-3 record in that span.
Adding to the U.S. comfort level, three of the American players – defender-midfielder Crystal Dunn, center back Abby Dahlkemper, and center midfielder Samantha Mewis -- play their home matches in Sahlen’s Stadium for the North Carolina Courage, newly crowned champions of the NWSL in August. Dunn is also one of three former North Carolina Tar Heels on the roster, along with midfielder-forward Tobin Heath and No. 2 goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris.
However, Ellis said her players, mindful of the failure of the U.S. men to make the 2018 World Cup field, weren’t taking the tournament for granted.
“We’ve got to earn it,” Ellis said. “We’ve got to earn the right to go on.”
And by playing Mexico first, the U.S. will probably face its toughest opponent right away, which should get the Americans’ attention.
“It’s the first opponent, so definitely it’s the toughest opponent,” Ellis said. “Mexico has been together for a while in preparation for this event. So, they’ve had time to jell. They’ve got players playing in a professional league now, they’ve got players playing internationally. … I think they going to be prepared and be well-schooled.”
Ellis meanwhile has turned over exactly half of her roster since the 2015 World Cup, with 10 holdovers and 10 new players. The process was accelerated by a disastrous showing in the 2016 Brazil Olympics, where the U.S. failed to medal.
The key veterans are forward Alex Morgan, who owns 90 international goals and 147 caps, outside midfielder-forward Megan Rapinoe, defensive midfielder Julie Ertz, and center back Becky Sauerbrunn. All were mainstays of the 2015 championship team.
Morgan, Rapinoe, and Sauerbrunn will be participating in their third World Cup qualifying tournament. It’s the fourth for veteran midfielder Carli Lloyd, who owns 259 caps and 102 international goals. Lloyd, the 2015 World Cup MVP, remains a dangerous scoring threat although she has become more of a situational substitute at age 38.
The most noticeable change in the U.S. side is in goal, where Alyssa Naeher has taken over behind a retooled back line of Sauerbrunn and Dahlkemper in the middle, Dunn on the left flank, and Emily Sonnett on the right.
Rapinoe and Ertz lead a deep midfield corps, where Ellis can also call on Mewis, Morgan Brian, Rose Lavelle, and Lindsey Horan.
Up front, Heath has established herself as a complementary strike partner alongside Morgan after a summer where she displayed a consummate passing game and an opportunistic goal-scoring ability. She has scored three goals and four assists over the past six matches for the national team.
CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying
(Matches televised on FS2)
Panama vs. Trinidad and Tobago, 5 p.m.
United States vs. Mexico, 7:30 p.m.
United States vs. Panama, 5 p.m.
Mexico vs. Trinidad and Tobago, 7:30 p.m.
Mexico vs. Panama, 5 p.m.
United States vs. Trinidad and Tobago, 7:30 p.m.
(Top two teams advance to CONCACAF semifinals Oct. 14 in Frisco, Texas.)