AUCKLAND, New Zealand — The opening match for the U.S. women’s national team at the 2023 Women’s World Cup is a little over 48 hours away. As such, the pressure ahead of the first game — even though it’s against relative minnows Vietnam, ranked 32 in the world according to FIFA — is building, and for the 14 U.S. players experiencing their first World Cup, they’re about to enter a brave new world.
The attention will be unlike anything the World Cup newbies have ever seen. Granted, the group has dealt with such difficulties over the course of their entire careers otherwise they wouldn’t have gotten this far. Players like Sophia Smith and Emily Fox have represented the U.S. at youth world championships, and there is a general knowledge of what being on the U.S. women’s national team entails.
“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 this is nothing new.”
But the World Cup is something special, with orders of magnitude more scrutiny than what they’ve experienced before. Expectations are also incredibly high. The U.S. has won four World Cups and is looking to achieve a historic three-peat. Nothing less than winning the tournament is acceptable.
So what’s the best way to cope? Preparation is the key, and that can include leaning on veterans such as Kelley O’Hara for advice.
“I think it comes down to understanding what you’re about to get into, and I think that this group does understand 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 in on the details, I feel like the mentality can be there and is that much easier because you’re prepared and you’re ready for anything.”
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Part of that preparation is getting a feel for what playing in such a big occasion is like, and there are multiple approaches that can be taken depending on the culture of the team. In some teams, there is a sink-or-swim, “You’re on your own, kid,” mentality. The best will rise to the top, or so the thinking goes. That might work on a club team, where the pressure of the season is more spread out. But on a national team, which entails needing to reach peak performance over a shorter time frame, the needs are more immediate.
So the USWNT takes a decidedly different approach. The helping hand — or in this case, voice — will aid in getting 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 make sure the entire group is as well-versed as possible on what’s ahead. And when you have veterans like Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe in the group, it behooves the newcomers to listen.
“They’re just such big personalities,” Smith said about the veterans. “And any time, if something’s hard or if a younger player is like, ‘Oh, today [is hard],’ they remind us that’s what it takes. This is 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 recollections of what it took to win on the toughest of days. Maybe the opposition had the upper hand for a spell. Maybe the U.S. even went a goal down. Or perhaps the team wasn’t pulling in the same direction as much as it should. Finding solutions in those 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 know to embrace it and learn to just take it all in and know that it’s a really cool experience, the good and the bad of it,” Smith said. “So just them sharing their experience with us, it’s been so valuable for us to just learn and be prepared for what is about to happen.”
All of these players are used to being at least one of the best performers on their respective teams, but the national team is obviously a different kind of challenge in that not everyone will get to play. The veterans have provided advice on that as well.
“We have a team talk about the pressures, and the external pressures that happen,” Fox said. “And really it was cool to hear from the veterans and how we can lean on them and that they’ve been through every position, whether starter, not starter, coming in, all those things.”
The fact remains that inexperience is a relative term. Eight of the 14 players who are performing in their first World Cup have at least 25 international appearances with the U.S. That leaves some players with opportunity to take on leadership opportunities when they can.
“I think everyone is a leader and everyone influences,” said Fox, who has 29 caps. “So whether it’s like your subgroup, or people you sit with at lunch, I think everyone has seen that they have an impact and that they can be a leader. 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 that they already have.
For 14 U.S. players, that first match against Vietnam will be the first World Cup test.