U.S. women prep for qualifying as 2019 World Cup field takes shape
Labor Day weekend marks at least the symbolic end of summer in the United States, but recent days found the soccer world already hard at work on preparations for next summer.
With European qualifying now complete, save a four-team playoff for one final spot, we know 15 of 24 teams that will compete in the 2019 Women's World Cup in France. We also now know the path the U.S. women will need to navigate in CONCACAF qualifying next month to add their own reservation.
From qualifying drama across the Atlantic Ocean to new schedule entries for the United States and final warm-ups for qualifying against Chile, here's a look at what changed in the past week.
U.S. women (still) control their own path to France
At least if things go terribly wrong for the United States in qualifying, it can still salvage matters with a result against Trinidad and Tobago in its final group game. That always works out well.
The truth is that as much as the recent U.S. men's qualifying disaster was a reminder not to take even seemingly simple qualifying assignments for granted, the draw for the CONCACAF Women's Championship is necessary but not illuminating. Mexico, Panama and Trinidad and Tobago join the United States in one group in Cary, North Carolina, while Costa Rica, Cuba and Jamaica join Canada in Edinburg, Texas.
Yes, the U.S. women got arguably the least favorable draw possible. It not only ended up in the same group as Mexico but opens with that game, thereby missing out on any chance to play itself into the tournament. But the team most likely to get in the way in the group stage was never Mexico or any of the six teams that joined the United States and Canada in the field. The biggest risk at that stage has always been, and remains, the U.S. women getting in their own way.
As long as that doesn't happen, this is all a matter of scheduling. Dating back to 2010, when then-host Mexico famously stunned the Americans in qualifying, the United States is not only unbeaten in 10 games against its neighbor but outscored it 43-4. Yes, Mexico scored three of those goals in a pair of games this year and was entertaining in the process, but it also conceded 10 goals.
And imagine a disaster scenario in which the U.S. women lose to Mexico in the opening game of the group, finish second and then lose to Canada in a semifinal. They would still need only win the third-place game to reach the World Cup -- or lose that game and beat Argentina in a playoff. If they somehow failed to do any of those things, there would be much bigger problems than missing one World Cup.
CONCACAF is still too top heavy, with too many paths to the World Cup, for the United States to fail.
If only that didn't sound so familiar.
USWNT warms up for qualifying
Two comfortable wins against Chile, already booked to its first World Cup, offered nothing that suggested the United States is ill prepared for its own upcoming qualification endeavors.
The Americans at peak form might have finished a few more chances -- and arguably did finish more than the referee allowed in an opening game that begged for video replay. But even with Megan Rapinoe injured, the available rotation was both abundant and effective around Alex Morgan and Julie Ertz, who are locks down the spine of the field. Rose Lavelle played a lot of minutes and created a lot of defensive disarray. Carli Lloyd looked more and more comfortable in a No. 9 role in the second half of each game. Any extended absence for McCall Zerboni, who left Tuesday's game with a broken elbow, is deeply depressing with regard to someone whose particular skill set and personality were carving out a place on the roster (and worse news, still, for the NWSL's North Carolina Courage ahead of the playoffs). But that mixing and matching in midfield and the forward line is likely to continue through qualifying and beyond. It's a feature, not a bug.
What Kelley O'Hara's return at right back after a six-month absence underscored was how much the back line also remains a rotation, which seems at least unusual if not also a little worrisome.
O'Hara and Crystal Dunn seem at the moment like the odds-on favorites to start at outside back next summer, but they have yet to play on the same back line this year. Dunn and Rapinoe have developed good chemistry on the left side but Dunn and Tobin Heath, the other player who will see time on the left side, have barely played together since Dunn's return to defense. (It's worth noting, in the spirit of all ideas eventually being new again, that Dunn also played outside back the last time the U.S. women warmed up for qualifying in 2014, but was subsequently injured.)
Tierna Davidson and Becky Sauerbrunn, who Julie Foudy identified Tuesday as the favorites to start at center back next month in an assessment many would reasonably sign on to co-sponsor, have started together just five times. For that matter, Sauerbrunn and Abby Dahlkemper, who spent 2017 developing chemistry, have started together as center backs just once in 2018.
And that isn't even getting to Casey Short, who came out Tuesday with an apparent injury, and Emily Sonnett, who figures to see ample minutes in qualifying with O'Hara still rounding into form.
Chile didn't pose the back line many problems. It remains to be seen how many CONCACAF opponents, save Canada, will pose. But it also remains to be seen if the United States will settle on a favored four any time soon.
Scotland's improbable journey
It took a summer-long comeback of near-miraculous proportions and a trip to Albania, but Scotland is going to the Women's World Cup for the first time.
Consider all the ways this could have gone awry.
On June 7, Scotland fell behind lowly Belarus at home and had to scramble for a 2-1 win. Even a draw would have all but doomed its qualification hopes with summer just getting started.
Five days later, as if to prove any hole can get deeper, an own goal with only a quarter of the game remaining left Scotland trailing by two goals in Poland. Three goals in the final 12 minutes, capped by a 90th minute winner, completed the comeback for a 3-2 win.
And all of that still only earned Scotland a slim chance to win the group entering this past week.
It first needed to beat group leader Switzerland, which it did 2-1 in a game in which all three goals were scored in the first seven minutes. It then needed help from Poland, which held Switzerland to a goalless draw Tuesday. And finally, it needed to win in Albania, that 2-1 result secured only on the strength of a Jane Ross goal in the 68th minute.
No group winner scored fewer goals or allowed as many. No group winner has as lean a history at its back, Scotland's only previous major tournament appearance coming in last summer's Women's Euro (not counting the combined United Kingdom entry in the 2012 Olympics).
But if Scotland caught a few breaks along the way, it is the sport that is fortunate that Kim Little, the former NWSL MVP who scored against both Switzerland and Albania in the most recent games, gets to play on the world stage next summer.
Norway returns the favor
It was a little more than a year ago that the contrast in fortunes between Norway and the Netherlands couldn't have been more stark. The Dutch were ascendent after a 1-0 win the first game of the Women's Euro, the hosts basking in the adulation of more than 20,000 mostly orange-clad fans and on their way to a championship. The Norwegians looked like a fading power, all the more once global superstar Ada Hegerberg parted ways with the national team after that tournament in protest over the state of the women's game in her country.
Hegerberg might still be right about long-term issues in Norway. Ranked ninth in the world, the Dutch might still have a bright future. But it is Norway headed back to the World Cup. Yet again.
Needing a win at home in Oslo to avoid the playoff, Norway got two goals in the first six minutes against the Netherlands and held on for a 2-1 victory. Winners in 1995 and semifinalists in four of the first five World Cups, Norway takes its accustomed place in the field. But like neighbor Sweden after a surprise qualifying run on the men's side without Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Norway will now face questions about whether Hegerberg, recently named a finalist for FIFA women's player of the year award after winning the Champions League with Lyon, will return.
Meanwhile, the Netherlands displaces 10th-ranked North Korea as the highest ranked team in danger of missing the World Cup (with No. 1 United States and No. 5 Canada still to begin qualifying).
The Danish dilemma
Denmark controlled its own group fate, and the Danes must now pin their World Cup hopes on the four-team playoff. An inspired finish saved a draw and a point in an otherwise insipid performance against last place Croatia last week. A better performance might have made a draw sufficient on the final day of qualifying, but the result still put Denmark in position to win the group at home by beating Sweden. It didn't happen, Sofia Jacobson's goal the difference in Sweden's 1-0 win.
So Sweden's streak of reaching every World Cup continues, and Denmark waits for the playoff.
Still, what Danish players did last October by sitting out a qualifier in Sweden while pressing for a more equitable labor deal with their federation was courageous precisely because it risked an eventual outcome like this. What was fair, or at least closer to fair, was more important.
Perhaps Sweden, which was superior from start to finish in Tuesday's game, would have won that forfeited meeting anyway. Maybe it even would have won by the 3-0 score line that accompanies a forfeit, a margin that loomed large for goal differential this past week. But the regrets Danish players have should be about their play this past week, not their courage last fall.
Joining Norway, Scotland and Sweden from Europe are group winners England, Germany, Italy and Spain and host France. Meanwhile, Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands and Switzerland will await this week's draw for the playoff that will settle the continent's final World Cup bid.