The defender is eyeing a second consecutive title but following the 2016 Olympics, the team isn’t taking anything for granted.
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The U.S. women’s national team enters every tournament with a certain level of expectations. It’s natural for a team that’s won four Olympic gold medals and three World Cup titles, including a triumph in the last World Cup in Canada.
Heading into the 2019 World Cup, if the USWNT aren’t the favorites, they’re certainly among them. It’s a distinction that defender Kelley O’Hara says is embraced in some ways and condemned in others.
On Saturday, the USWNT were drawn into a group alongside Thailand, Chile and, most importantly, perennial rivals Sweden ahead of the tournament in France. It’s not the Group of Death like that of 2015, but it’s a three-match run that will certainly end in a test with that Sweden match.
Heading into France, the U.S. is the No. 1 ranked team in the world with high expectations but, if the 2016 Olympics defeat to Sweden taught us anything, it’s that favorites don’t always become champions
O’Hara was a member of both that 2015 World Cup squad and the 2016 Olympic team. Since breaking through with the USWNT, O’Hara has learned what it means to be seen as the front-runner, and the difficulties that come with it.
“I would never place us as ‘favorites’, or put it on us,” O’Hara told reporters following the draw. “But we do hold ourselves to a very high standard and, 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.”
O’Hara called the group draw “serendipitous” given the familiarity of all the teams involved. The USWNT thrashed Chile 3-0 and 4-0 just this year. They took down Thailand 9-0 this cycle. Sweden is a traditional rival, one the USWNT will look to seek a bit of revenge on following a draw at the 2015 World Cup and a defeat on penalties at the 2016 Olympics.
The field heading into 2019 is as strong as ever as teams like hosts France, Germany, England, Canada and Australia all loom large.
“The gap between the top-ranked team and the lowest in this World Cup is much closer than it ever has been, in terms of just level of play,” O’Hara said. “That is attributed to federations investing more time and money into their female program which, I think, needs to continue. It’s just starting and it’s only going to get better, but it does need that investment from the federations.
“I think they’ll be pleasantly surprised to see that the competition is going to be stiff and exciting.”
Since the last World Cup, the U.S. has lost matches to England, France and Australia as the team has undergone a rebuild. The 2017 campaign was headlined by that trio of defeats, including a historic 3-0 battering at the hands of France that signaled a number of big issues with the team.
The USWNT have won 18 of their 20 matches this year though, with the other two being draws, as the team has seemingly found its form. Along the way, the USWNT has defeated the likes of Germany, England, Japan and Brazil before coasting through Concacaf qualifying.
“Obviously we went through a pretty big transition period after the Olympics and [head coach Jill Ellis] was very transparent about that to the media and to us,” O’Hara said. “Since then, it was growing pains growing through that. It’s been a consistent group now and that’s important for us to grow in terms of chemistry.
“These next six months leading into the first game, starting in January, this will be the time we come together as a team and focus on ourselves, on the style of play and honing the tools we already have.”
The road in France will be the toughest one yet for the USWNT and, if the infamous Olympic loss to Sweden is any indication, there isn’t anything guaranteed anymore. For years, it was the U.S. and then everyone else. No longer.
That’s exciting for O’Hara, who has earned 112 caps and appeared in two World Cups and two Olympic games. Still, the process is still as exciting and nerve-wracking as ever.
“I’m pumped. So excited,” she said. “It’s nice to finally know who our competition is going to be in those first three games. We can start to prepare and envision who is going to be on the other side of the field. It’s just nice to know.
“It feels real today,” she added. “I have a headache after watching that. I think that my stress levels went up a bit just because of the excitement, knowing what it is. Now that the draw has happened, the brackets are filled, the groups are filled, it’s real. It’s happening. It’s going to be here before we know it.”