The United States Women’s National Team will formally launch its run to what it hopes is the nation’s third World Cup title Wednesday night, when it takes on Trinidad and Tobago in the first of its qualifying matches for next June’s 2015 Women’s World Cup.
Qualifying for the CONCACAF region — teams from the North America, the Caribbean, and Central America — will take place over the next 12 days, with the top three of eight teams securing spots in the Women’s World Cup, which Canada is hosting. The fourth place team, meanwhile, will enter a playoff with Ecuador, the team that finished third in South American qualifying, to determine another participant. The eight teams are separated into two four-team groups, and the top two from each will advance to a two-round knockout stage (here’s the TV schedule).
The Americans’ match with Trinidad and Tobago will, at least temporarily, shift the focus back to actual soccer after a summer spent fighting FIFA and the Canadian Soccer Association over playing surfaces. Earlier this month, more than 40 international soccer players, including top Americans, filed a lawsuit against FIFA and the CSA alleging that playing the Women’s World Cup on artificial turf violated Canadian gender discrimination laws, given that FIFA has never held a men’s World Cup on turf and has ignored the women’s desire to play on grass. All of CONCACAF matches, incidentally, will take place on natural grass.
The match also begins a run that gives the U.S. a chance to exorcise the demons that remain from 2011, when the Americans fell short of a World Cup title by losing the final to Japan. That followed consecutive third-place finishes in 2003 and 2007, and though the Americans have won three consecutive Olympic gold medals, a third World Cup title has proven elusive since they won on home soil in 1999.
That’s true for no one more than Abby Wambach, who scored the iconic goal of the 2011 World Cup and has scored 170 goals in her national team career, enough to make her the world’s leading all-time international scorer. At age 34, Wambach is entering her fourth — and probably last — chance to win her sport’s most important trophy.
“The fact remains, I’ve never won a World Cup,” Wambach told ThinkProgress in September. “I’m excited about the opportunity to be able to bring a World Cup home to my country.”
To do that, the Americans will have to get through qualifying first, but that seems a mere formality. The U.S. is the overwhelming favorite to ease through the qualifying stages, especially without Canada (who automatically qualified as the host) present. The American women haven’t lost a match on home soil since 2004, and they’re hosting the entire qualifying stage — Wednesday in Kansas City, Friday in Chicago, Monday in D.C., and the knockouts outside Philadelphia. They’ve also dropped only a single qualifying match in their history and, as ESPNW noted, have outscored the other seven teams present by a combined 303–13 in head-to-head matches all-time. And with Wambach and Alex Morgan healthy and a stable of other stars, the U.S. has the sort of depth and talent that no one in this region can match.
But the other nations bring stories and promise of their own. The USWNT’s first opponent, Trinidad and Tobago, made it to qualifying despite being desperately underfunded, reaching the U.S. with just $500 to cover team expenses and “no balls, cones, nothing” to help train, according to one player. That led their coach, American Randy Waldrum, to appeal for help on Twitter. He eventually got it, with assistance from fellow participants: Haiti’s cash-strapped federation kicked in $1,300, other organizations and fan groups helped, and the social media campaign helped raise money. Waldrum’s appeal wasn’t without controversy, as it reportedly embarrassed the Trinidad and Tobago national federation, which later sent more assistance to help the mostly-amateur players (CONCACAF covers funding during the actual tournament).
Mexico is largely expected to take the second qualifying spot, but there is a big honor on the line for teams like Haiti and Trinidad and Tobago. The Women’s World Cup’s expansion from 16 teams to 24 and Canada’s automatic bid mean that CONCACAF has an extra spot to fill, and those two countries will fight Jamaica and Guatemala to become the first Central American or Caribbean team to ever qualify for the women’s version of soccer’s biggest tournament.