The 2019 Women’s World Cup statistically features the strongest field in the history of the event, and still the U.S. women’s national team has dominated its first two games like no other team has. After crushing Thailand 13-0 in their opener, the Americans added a 3-0 win against Chile on Sunday to push their goal differential to plus-16.
The U.S. faces its toughest test of the group stage Thursday against Sweden, but if Jill Ellis’s squad wins that one — the FiveThirtyEight model gives the U.S. a 61 percent chance — it will at least tie the all-time record for goal differential in the group stage, set by Norway’s plus-17 in 1995.
Only eight other teams in the first seven World Cups finished with double-digit positive goal differentials, and while those scores are often dismissed because of the competition, they have been indicative of teams that are skilled enough to win the tournament — that 1995 Norway team won the World Cup. Of the 13 contenders that have entered the knockout stage at plus-8 or better, all have reached at least the semifinals — an important marker for a U.S. team facing a possible showdown against host France in the quarterfinals.
|1995||Norway||Won||ENG, CAN, NGA||17||0||+17|
|2015||Germany||Fourth||NOR, THA, CIV||15||1||+14|
|2007||Germany||Won||CAN, JPN, ARG||13||0||+13|
|1999||USA||Won||NGA, PRK, DEN||13||1||+12|
|1999||Norway||Fourth||RUS, CAN, JPN||13||2||+11|
|2003||Germany||Won||CAN, JPN, ARG||13||2||+11|
|1999||China||Second||SWE, AUS, GHA||12||2||+10|
|2003||USA||Third||SWE, PRK, NGA||11||1||+10|
|2007||Brazil||Second||CHN, DEN, NZL||10||0||+10|
|1991||USA||Won||SWE, JPN, BRA||11||2||+9|
|1991||Germany||Fourth||ITA, TPE, NGA||9||0||+9|
|1991||Sweden||Third||JPN, USA, BRA||12||3||+9|
|1999||Brazil||Third||GER, ITA, MEX||12||4||+8|
Wins like the Americans’ rout against Thailand, which ranked as the third-worst team entering the tournament according to the Soccer Power Index,1 aren’t the kind of game they can expect in the knockout stage. While the USWNT has yet to face a real challenge, this draw, at least, has had its benefits. Lopsided scores in the first two games allowed Ellis to rotate her lineups, inserting seven new starters. Through two games, every American player besides the backup goalkeepers has appeared in a game, and no outfield player has played every minute of both. In addition to saving legs, those comfortable victories helped with confidence, creating a sense that the U.S. is playing its best at the right time. “First of all, it’s obviously for morale purposes and cohesion and team and all that, it’s fantastic,” Ellis said after the Chile match. “It’s a happy camp.”
Sweden, which also earned wins against Chile and Thailand, has tested the Americans as much as any team in the world over the past four years. Sweden beat the U.S. in the group stage of the 2011 World Cup, and in 2015 the sides battled to a scoreless draw in which possession was about even2 and the U.S. managed just two shots on goal. The following summer, the Americans lost in the Olympic quarterfinals for the first time when Sweden beat them in a penalty kick shootout.
That Olympic loss to Sweden sparked a tweak in Ellis’s strategy in preparation for the next World Cup. Coming off a frustrating game in which Sweden’s solid defense made it difficult for the U.S. to generate opportunities, Ellis moved from a 4-4-2 formation to a 4-3-3, pushing forward more to pressure opposing back lines. “Coming out of the Olympics, I said we’ve got to make sure we’re prepared for this new piece of evolution,” she told reporters before this World Cup.
The result is a star-studded lineup paced in the final third by veterans Carli Lloyd, Megan Rapinoe, Tobin Heath and Alex Morgan. The attack-focused Americans have bombarded their opponents with shots in their first two games — 65 in total, 30 on goal. They have shot more in each 2019 matchup than in any of their seven 2015 tests. (All seven 2015 opponents were also rated higher in ESPN’s SPI than Thailand and Chile are this year.)
The U.S. now leads the World Cup in expected goals, and that firepower is a good omen for the knockout stage. In hindsight, group-stage wins of 8-0, 2-0 and 7-0 prepared Norway in 1995 to take down the U.S. in the semifinals and Germany in the final. By contrast, the last time the U.S. didn’t win the World Cup (in 2011), it also lost a group-stage match for the first time — against Sweden.
With an advantage in goal differential, the U.S. needs only a draw Thursday to win Group F and set up a match with Spain in the round of 16. But if the team’s first 180 minutes are any indication, the Americans won’t be sitting back on defense. Ellis said after the Chile match that she feared “manipulating or planning or overthinking something,” and another strong showing would build more confidence. The early part of the group stage was an easy road for the U.S., but the knockout phase will not be. After she scored twice against Chile, Lloyd told reporters, “We are climbing up a mountain now, and it’s only going to get harder.”
Check out our latest Women’s World Cup predictions.