We assume the United States is going to do well at the Women's World Cup because that's what they do. They may or may not win it (we'd prefer winning it), but they're always going to be a threat. That is the expectation, born from 24 years of history that has proven the U.S. to be a contender at each and every World Cup.
The Americans stand atop the women's soccer world. For now.
As the U.S. heads into this summer's World Cup, their status on top of the women's soccer world is in doubt. The way we see the team is hanging in the balance, too. Never before has the team looked as vulnerable as they do now, and it comes as the Americans are set to be on one of the biggest stages they have ever been thrust onto, with a spotlight brighter than they have seen in more than a dozen years.
The U.S. has struggled for more than a year, to put it mildly. They fired Tom Sermanni, who had one bad Algarve Cup. Everything he had been working on, bringing along new young players and developing a more midfield-centric style of play that would give the team more variety and ways to attack, was tossed out in the window. In his place came Jill Ellis, who has taken the U.S. back in time.
Ellis' changes came quickly and they came with a familiar theme -- what is old is new. Few new players were brought in and the style went back to one that relied on strength and speed above all else. The big changes was pushing some players out of position, normally to keep as many regular players in the team as possible. And to round things out, the overhaul even came with the return of a familiar face face in the top assistant for Pia Sundhage's American team Tony Gustavsson, who rejoined the team as a coach.
The results were not stellar. While poor results at the start of 2014 helped Sermanni get the axe, they hardly improved after he left. The U.S. won just 16 of 23 matches last year, their worst winning percentage since 2007 in a non-World Cup year. The bulk of the wins came against overmatched CONCACAF teams and in their toughest challenge late in the year at the Brasilia Tournament, they managed just one win from four matches. Top teams have rendered the Americans average, with the U.S. winning a mere three of seven matches against fellow top seven teams since Ellis took over.
For most teams, a 70 percent winning percentage would be phenomenal. And going 3-2-2 against the best teams in the world would be cause for celebration. But the Americans are graded on a curve, one set by 25 years of excellence, and their recent record doesn't grade well on that curve. They don't look like the best in the world. They don't look ready to be the best in the world. And when it comes to the U.S., that's what we expect.
Luckily for the U.S., they're hardly the only flawed team. Germany is missing captain Nadine Kessler, while nobody is quite sure how France will handle being one of the favorites for the first time. Japan hasn't looked much better than the U.S. of late and Sweden don't quite have the talent and experience of the four teams in front of them.
With so many teams in some way dealing with problems, the U.S., struggles and all, have as good of a shot at the World Cup title as any team. They still have Carli Lloyd, Hope Solo, Abby Wambach, Lauren Holiday, Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe. They still have the aura of one of the world's most dominant teams. They still have a rabid following set to make the trek north and turn every match into a pro-American crowd. But that's about all they have right now.
The U.S. can't talk about the way they've played of late, great growth or even overwhelming talent. They're going to go up against increasingly technical teams and hope that Wambach can win a header, Morgan or Sydney Leroux can run down a ball in the box, Solo can bail them out and, if that doesn't work, Lloyd can win the match on her own. It's that type of physical dominance and admirable spirit brought them to the top. Of course, in past tournaments the competition wasn't nearly as good and the Americans' technicality didn't seem so pedestrian compared to the rest of the world's best teams, but it worked then and the U.S. really hopes it works again.
And therein lies the problem. Most of what gives U.S. fans hope is blind faith. Faith that the accomplished players they've had, most of whom are in worse form now than they were four years ago, can reclaim their magic. Faith that their style of play can still work in an evolving women's game. Faith that intangibles like aura, history, fans and spirit can be worth a goal or four.
There once was a time that the U.S. had more than that. But that was when they weren't coming off of a rough year, or had so many players out of form, or went backward while the world rushed forward.
The U.S. is still a favorite. They are still a world power. They can still win the World Cup. But most of that status is built on history and a well-earned reputation as one of the best, not the present. Come 2019, we may not be talking about the team in the same way. That reputation may be sullied. And if it is, it will be sullied this month, in Canada, where everything we know about the U.S. women's national team will be challenged.