Jeff CarlisleAmerican football correspondent6 minute reading
AUCKLAND, New Zealand – The U.S. Women’s National Team’s opening game at the 2023 Women’s World Cup is just over 48 hours away. As such, the pressure is mounting ahead of the first match – even if it is against relative minnows Vietnam, ranked 32 in the world according to FIFA – and for the 14 American players experiencing their first World Cup, they are about to enter a brave new world.
The attention will be unlike anything World Cup rookies have ever seen. Granted, the group has dealt with such difficulties throughout their career or they wouldn’t have made it this far. Players like Sophia Smith and Emily Fox have represented the USA at the World Youth Championship, and there is a general knowledge of what it means to be on the US Women’s National Team.
“Being on this team, it comes with a big target on your back,” Smith said. “It comes with pressure, it comes with a big platform and we all know that’s nothing new.”
But the World Cup is something special, with orders of magnitude more scrutiny than they’ve experienced before. The expectations are also incredibly high. The USA has won four World Cups and is looking to achieve a historic three-peat. Nothing less than winning the tournament is acceptable.
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So what is the best way to cope? Preparation is key, and that may include leaning on veterans like Kelley O’Hara for advice.
“I think it’s about understanding what you’re going into and I think this group understands that,” said O’Hara, who has been on two World Cup-winning teams. “And then I think it’s just the little things: the details, the intangibles. Mentality is like an intangible. But if you have the preparation, if you’ve honed the details, I feel like the mentality can be there and is so much easier because you’re prepared and you’re ready for anything.”
Part of that preparation is getting a feel for what it’s like to play in such a big venue, and there are several approaches that can be taken depending on the team’s culture. In some teams, there’s a sink-or-swim, “You’re on your own, kid,” mentality. The best will rise to the top, or so the thinking goes. It might work on a club team where the pressure of the season is more spread out. But on a national team, which involves the need to reach top performance over a shorter time frame, the needs are more immediate.
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So the USWNT has a completely different approach. The helping hand—or in this case, the voice—will help get everyone to the top of the mountain. For that reason, a significant amount of knowledge transfer from the veterans to the World Cup rookies takes place, the better to ensure that the entire group is as well versed as possible on what lies ahead. And when you have veterans like Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe in the group, it behooves the newcomer to listen.
“They’re just such big personalities,” Smith said of the veterans. “And anytime if something is difficult or if a younger player says, ‘Oh, today [is hard],’ they remind us that this is what it takes. That’s what this environment is, and they’ve been there, they’ve done it, they’ve gone through everything to do it.”
Usually this comes in the form of memories of what it took to win on the toughest days. Perhaps the opposition had the upper hand for a spell. Maybe the US even went down a goal. Or maybe the team wasn’t pulling in the same direction as much as it should. Finding solutions in these moments separates championship teams from the chasing pack.
“All those stories I think have helped all of us younger players, or players who don’t have experience in world tournaments, know what to expect and to embrace it and learn to just take it all in and know that it’s a really cool experience, both the good and the bad about it,” Smith said. “So just those sharing their experiences with us, it’s been so valuable for us to just learn and be prepared for what’s about to happen.”
All these players are used to being at least one of the best players in their respective teams, but the national team is obviously a different kind of challenge in that not everyone gets to play. The veterans have also advised on this.
“We have a team conversation about the pressures and the external pressures that are happening,” Fox said. “And it was really cool to hear from the veterans and how we can lean on them and that they’ve been through every position, whether starting, not starting, coming in, all those things.”
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The fact is that inexperience is a relative term. Eight of the 14 players appearing in their first World Cup have at least 25 caps with the United States, allowing some players to take on leadership opportunities when they can.
“I think everyone is a leader and everyone makes an impact,” said Fox, who has 29 caps. “So whether it’s your subgroup or people you sit with at lunch, I think everyone has seen that they have an impact and that they can be leaders. And show support to everyone on the team.”
That said, stories and knowledge can only take a player so far. At some point, success on the field comes down to a player meeting the moment and using the experiences they already have.
For 14 American players, the first game against Vietnam will be the first World Cup test.