Once again, the U.S. is in the mix to win the World Cup this year. They're not the No. 1 ranked team in the world anymore, but No. 2 isn't too shabby and there is no real favorite this time around. Any of the top five teams in the world could win the tournament and it wouldn't be in the least bit surprising. So how does the U.S. get to the summit?
This year's tournament is a little more complicated than most. The field has expanded to 24 teams so some teams that finish third in their groups will advance and the knockout stages now include a round of 16.
There are two routes for the U.S.: one if they win their group, the other is they finish second in their group. Either spot is entirely possible with a very good Sweden team also drawn with them.
If the U.S. win Group D
The top spot in Group D would be a huge boost to the U.S. because it would put them in the top half of the bracket, which is significantly easier in the first two knockout stage rounds. The Americans would end up playing their round of 16 contest in Edmonton, which means little travel, and against a third place group finisher, which means an easy opponent.
From there, the U.S. would head to Ottawa, which isn't ideal, but they would be playing the runner up from either Group A or Group C. The runners up from those groups will probably be the Netherlands or Norway, which would likely result in the Americans taking on Norway. That's not an easy match, but it's entirely manageable.
Once you get to the semifinals, there's no such thing as an easy or even manageable match. They're going to be tough, grueling and kick your ass. For the U.S., that semifinal would come in Montreal, likely against Germany or France. The winners of Group B and Group F are slated to play in the quarterfinals and, assuming the two powerhouses make it that far, the Americans would face the winner in the semifinal. That would also be the first time all tournament that the U.S. wouldn't be an overwhelming favorite. They may even be an underdog.
Come the final, the U.S. should meet either Sweden, Japan or Brazil. That means either another clash with Pia Sundhage, a rematch of the 2011 final or Abby Wambach trying to save the Americans' bacon against the Brazilians one more time.
If the U.S. finish second in Group D
Finishing second in Group D would not leave the Americans in a good spot. Whereas winning the group would give the U.S. easier round of 16 and quarterfinal matches, second place puts them in the bottom half of the bracket and a tough match at every step.
The round of 16 would see the U.S. play the Group E winner. That is likely going to be Brazil, although Spain could nip the spot. So the options for the Americans would be stopping Marta or stopping Vero Boquete. That's not an enviable first knockout stage match and having to go from the western most venue of Vancouver to the eastern most venue of Moncton -- crossing four time zones along the way -- only makes it tougher.
The next round would send the U.S. to Edmonton, which means another cross-country trip. This time it would be to play the Group C winner in all likelihood, which will almost certainly be Japan. The good news is that if they can get through Brazil and Japan, as well as two long flights, they would get to stay in Edmonton for the semifinals, but a meeting with Canada and a rowdy home crowd of 56,000 would loom.
Canada is an easier opponent than France or Germany, which is what the U.S. would face in the top half of the bracket, but even if they get past the host country, they'd be staring at a final against either of the two European powerhouses. That is unless Sweden upsets them. The point is that the final would be brutal, but at least a short trip from Edmonton to Vancouver from the semifinal would be part of it.
Win Group D please.