The World Cup is always about expectations, but reputations count for a lot, too.
The United States women’s team, which plays Vietnam at 9 p.m. in its first match of the tournament in Auckland, New Zealand, knows this, of course.
Wins and trophies and championships send a message even before the team steps on the field, and Friday will be no different. Its chase for a third consecutive World Cup championship — and fifth overall — opens today with a game against Vietnam. It is not, on paper (or, let’s be honest, on grass) what most would consider a fair fight.
Vietnam seems to agree. Its players gathered around the U.S. players for selfies at a welcoming ceremony in Auckland this week, and on Friday at a pregame news conference at Eden Park, a reporter from Vietnam took the microphone, introduced himself, and took direct aim at the elephant in the room.
“What do you expect from the Vietnam team tomorrow,” he asked Vlatko Andonovski, the U.S. coach . “Are you going to crush us like against Thailand four years ago?”
It was, in all honesty, a fair question, and one that has been on many a mind since the World Cup draw dropped Vietnam, a World Cup debutante, into the path of the United States, the tournament’s two-time defending champion, in the teams’ first game.
Every soccer fan, every player, every coach knows what happened when the United States faced Thailand in a similar spot four years ago: a 13-0 victory that evoked emotions that morphed from respect to awe to backlash over 90 stunningly noncompetitive minutes. Many of those people, and perhaps even some on both teams, are expecting something similar against Vietnam.
As the room broke into laughter at the question, Andonovski flashed a quick smile, spoke graciously about respect, and admitted, “They will fight and make it as hard as possible for us.” He could not say it, but another 13-0 would be fine with him. The more goals, the better.
The United States team that arrived at this World Cup is not the same one that rolled into France four years ago and beat all comers. It is a team battling injuries, blending veterans and rookies, trying to find its way, still, under Andonovski, who like 14 of his players is at his first World Cup.
There are, of course, links to those past champions. Alex Morgan, who scored five goals against the Thais, will be back on the hunt against Vietnam. Rose Lavelle, who had two that day in Reims, is finally fit again after months away from the team, Andonovski said. Lindsey Horan and Megan Rapinoe, two other names from the 2019 score sheet, are back in different roles: the former as a co-captain, the latter as a battle-tested substitute, a card to play in key moments and big games.
Are they as ruthless as the team that won, 13-0? Carli Lloyd recoiled, four years ago, at the idea that the United States should have eased up, taken its foot off the gas. The killer instinct that drove her and her teams forward, she said, gave no quarter for a reason. It was what made them great.
And while this is a new team, maybe that ethos still burns through it. Andonovski surely will hope so.