Tuesday, November 29, 2022

USWNT begins World Cup qualifying quest at Concacaf W Championship

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MONTERREY, Mexico — The US women’s national soccer team, a mix of ages and experiences but missing several eminent figures, has come to this mountain-draped metropolis carrying a three-part mission statement.

Qualify for the 2023 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, a project that, barring historic upsets, will come to fruition in short order.

Qualify for the 2024 Paris Olympics, which will require substantial work.

Reclaim the regional mantle from gold medalist Canada after stumbling at the Tokyo Games last year.

All three quests will play out over two weeks in two stadiums in one eight-nation tournament, the Concacaf W Championship. Four teams will qualify for the World Cup but just one will earn an automatic Olympic berth. The second invitation to Paris will be decided in a playoff next year between the second- and third-place finishers here.

“The tournament, the significance of it, is a little bit bigger because we do try to qualify for two major tournaments,” said US Coach Vlatko Andonovski, whose team will begin group play Monday night against Haiti. “We can look at Canada, [but] our focus is to be the best we can in the first game, and then we’ll move on to the next one.”

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For the opportunity to pursue a third consecutive World Cup trophy next summer, the top-ranked Americans are required to finish first or second in the group stage here. They probably will be able to accomplish that by defeating the 60th-ranked Haitians and No. 51 Jamaica on Thursday. In 11 meetings against those squads, the United States has won every match — by a 72-0 aggregate.

Should results in the other Group A matches leave mathematical uncertainty, the Americans might need another point July 11 against No. 26 Mexico.

The Americans’ record in the Mexico series is 39-1-1, but a big crowd is expected to support an improving home side that’s chasing a third World Cup berth in four attempts. Furthermore, that one defeat came in the 2011 World Cup qualifiers in Cancun, a result that shipped the Americans to an intercontinental playoff.

There is greater room for error these days, thanks to FIFA expanding the World Cup field from 24 to 32 teams and including four Concacaf slots instead of three.

The US team will look much different here than in recent years. Only six of the 14 players who appeared in the 2019 World Cup final against the Netherlands are on the current roster.

Carli Lloyd retired, and Tobin Heath didn’t make the cut. Crystal Dunn and Julie Ertz are on maternity leave. Christen Press, Sam Mewis, Abby Dahlkemper and Tierna Davidson are hurt.

Newcomer Catarina Macario, who quickly became one of the world’s top players, tore an ACL last month. Lynn Williams is also sidelined.

Andonovski filled the voids with, among others, the Washington Spirit’s Ashley Hatch, Ashley Sanchez, Trinity Rodman and Andi Sullivan (Lorton); Racing Louisville’s Emily Fox (Ashburn); and Gotham FC’s Margaret Purce (Silver Spring).

They joined a core of 30-somethings: Megan Rapinoe, captain Becky Sauerbrunn, Alex Morgan, Alyssa Naeher and Kelley O’Hara, who is one of seven Spirit players on the 23-player roster.

The young players have “done [an] incredible job so far, but at the same time, we also know and understand they can’t take everything [on] themselves,” Andonovski said.

The middle layer, in terms of age and experience, includes 2019 World Cup hero Rose Lavelle, Lindsey Horan and Mallory Pugh.

It was important, Andonovski added, to invite players who add maturity both on and off the field.

“They need to help [the younger players] for stressful environments like this tournament,” he said. “These young players, as good as they’re doing, they’re doing even better now with the experienced players around them.”

Assessing the team as a whole, Sauerbrunn said: “This is a motivated, hungry group. And just being with this group the last week and a half, two weeks, the vibes are just really good. The energy is really good, and going into a major tournament, that’s one of the most important things I look for: How does it feel? And right now it feels really good.”

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In the opener, the United States will face an opponent with several players who are Haitian American.

The probable starting goalkeeper is Lara Larco, a Florida native and rising sophomore at Georgetown. She was third string last fall and redshirted.

Defender Claire Constant, a senior at Virginia, was The Washington Post’s 2018 All-Met Player of the Year at TC Williams (now known as Alexandria City). Midfielder Milan Pierre-Jerome, a Florida native, transferred this year to George Mason from Maryland.

“It’s a very special game for these players,” Haiti Coach Nicolas Delépine said. “We talk about that with the players because it’s not so easy for [them] to play against the USA. We have a lot of young players in the team, and the [best opportunity] to get confidence is to play against the best team.”

The Haitians see the big picture, which is finishing ahead of Mexico and Jamaica in the group.

“If we [do] something wrong or something good [Monday], it’s not really the most important,” Delépine said. “What’s most important is to get confidence, get experience for the two next games.”

Canada, Costa Rica, Panama and Trinidad and Tobago make up Group B, which will begin play Tuesday.

CBS Sports, which owns English TV rights to the tournament, will carry Monday’s matches and the July 14 semifinals on CBS Sports Network and Paramount Plus, a pay streaming service. All other games are on Paramount Plus only. ViX, a streaming service owned by Univision, will show matches in Spanish.

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