The FIFA Women’s World Cup kicks off in France on Friday, when the host county takes on South Korea at 3 p.m. ET. Expectations are high for the top-ranked United States in the monthlong event. The U.S. is seeking a fourth World Cup title after victories in 1991 (the first year of the event), 1999, and in 2015. With a tournament win, Team USA would become just the second-ever country to win back-to-back Women’s World Cup titles; Germany took the trophy in 2003 and 2007.
Four years ago, some 25 million people watched the American women’s team beat Japan in the World Cup final — a record U.S. audience for any soccer game. New York City threw the team a ticker-tape parade, a first for a women’s sports squad. “I was actually thinking, like, shit man, they’re going to close down New York City, New Yorkers can be pissed, not that many people are going to come,” says U.S. forward Megan Rapinoe. But thousands of fans lined the streets of lower Manhattan to fête the World Cup champs. “To be completely blown away like that was very, very special,” she says.
Now Team USA is looking for an even bigger celebration. To help you catch soccer fever this summer, here’s TIME’s guide to the Women’s World Cup.
The path to victory
Team USA was placed in Group F — one of six four-team groupings that make up the 24-team tournament — along with Chile, Sweden, and Thailand. So that you know when to sneak away from work: the U.S. kicks off against Thailand, in Reims, on Tuesday, June 11, at 3 p.m ET. Then, the Americans take on World Cup newbies Chile on Sunday, June 16, at 12 p.m. ET in Paris. The U.S. will be heavy favorites against those two teams, which could set up a showdown with Sweden, on Thursday, June 20, at 3 p.m. ET in Le Havre, for first place in the group. The top two teams in each of the six groups, plus the top four third place teams, advance to the round of 16 knockout stage.
A U.S.-Sweden duel for group supremacy has potential for intrigue, since the winner could face host country France in a quarterfinal (assuming France wins its group). So finishing in second could actually offer an easier path to the semifinals.
The fight off the pitch
The U.S. women’s team enters this World Cup embroiled in a lawsuit with its employer. On March 8, International Women’s Day, the team filed a federal gender discrimination complaint against the U.S. Soccer Federation, arguing that the organization pays “only lip service to gender equality.” The federation has denied unlawful conduct, attributing any alleged pay discrepancies to “differences in the aggregate revenue generated by the different teams and/or any other factor other than sex.”
The World Cup also spotlights more indignity for the women: two major regional men’s tournaments, the CONCACAF Gold Cup (which features the U.S. men and other teams from North America, Central America and the Caribbean) and the CONMEBOL Copa América (featuring the best teams in South America) are being held at the same time; the finals of the Gold Cup and Copa América are on July 7, the same day as the Women’s World Cup. The men’s World Cup final would never have to share a stage with another soccer tournament. “It’s ridiculous and disappointing,” says Rapinoe.
FIFA has touted its doubling of prize money available to the 2019 Women’s World Cup countries, from $15 to $30 million (the winning country gets $4 million, up from the $2 million the U.S. received for winning the tournament in 2015). But the gender pay gap has actually widened, as the men have seen increases too, from $358 million in 2014 to $400 million in 2018, a bump which increased the difference in men’s and women’s prize money from $343 million to $370 million.
So FIFA’s raises have still left many women feeling they don’t get what they deserve. The Associated Press has reported that FIFA’s cash reserves soared to a record $2.74 billion in the four-year period covering the 2018 World Cup. “They have essentially unlimited resources,” says Rapinoe. “I don’t think that it’s really been a huge change at all. I think sort of the incremental change that we’ve seen is just not enough. I don’t think that’s really the model that needs to happen. I would like to see a major paradigm shift.”
The Americans’ star striker
U.S. striker Alex Morgan — subject of a recent TIME cover story — is the biggest star in U.S. soccer. In April, Morgan, 29, became the third-youngest American player (behind Mia Hamm and Abby Wambach) to score 100 international goals. She has endorsement deals with companies like Nike, Coca-Cola, and Proctor & Gamble deodorant brand Secret, and a social media following in the millions. According to Hookit, a sports sponsorship analytics company, she delivers five times the social media engagement rate of the number two U.S. women’s player, Carli Lloyd. What’s more, she tops the engagement rate of the top-ranked men’s player, Christian Pulisic, sixfold. Among female athletes worldwide, she ranks fifth in social media engagement, trailing only Ronda Rousey, Serena Williams, Simone Biles and Maria Sharapova.
“I see her behind the scenes day-to-day,” says Rapinoe. “I think a lot of people see her show up and get sponsorships and score goals. But the amount of work she puts into it, and her desire to be as good as she possibly can be, is way more than most. She has that sort of elite mentality, not showing up and hoping that the World Cup goes great for her. But ensuring that the World Cup goes great.”
The last time the U.S. women appeared in a major global tournament, the team made its earliest-ever exit from a mega-event: Sweden, then led by former U.S. coach Pia Sundhage, beat the Americans in 2016 Olympics quarterfinals on a penalty shootout following a 1-1 draw. Afterwards, U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo caused an international incident by calling the Swedes a “bunch of cowards” for sitting back on defense. (Solo, historically a supremely talented but divisive presence on the team, is gone this year, replaced by Alyssa Naeher, 31, who’ll make her World Cup debut; either Brianna Scurry or Solo has played every minute of every Olympics and World Cup since 2003.)
At the time, the quarterfinal defeat hit the Americans hard. But now it’s serving as motivation. “I feel like the loss in 2016 is fueling this team,” says forward Christen Press. After those Olympics, Morgan needed a reset. She spent part of 2017 playing for Olympique Lyonnais, one of the world’s premier club teams, and started meditating and doing yoga in France. “I hope that defeat and disappointment sticks in our minds,” says Morgan, “because I think it’s important for us to know that feeling when we step on the field on the highest stage again.” So they’ll work harder to never experience it again.
The Sauerbrunn Plan could save us
Pretty much all soccer fans agree that penalty-kick shootouts are a highly unsatisfying way to settle a tie. U.S. defender Becky Sauerbrunn, however, offers a pretty novel way to ditch PKs.
If a game is still tied after 30 minutes of extra time, instead of penalty kicks, all 11 players take the field for a sudden death session. Sauerbrunn’s twist: every two minutes, coaches must call one of their players off the field. If no one can score on 8v8 or 5v5 or even 2v2, the last player for each team goes 1v1, first score wins. And if that means two keepers are playing a little schoolyard head-to-head game — but on a 115 yard field and in front of millions — even better!
We need to get the Sauerbrunn Plan in front of FIFA. “Put me on the task force,” she says.
Remember Carli Lloyd? The American soccer star who scored a hat trick against Japan in the 2015 World Cup final, including an almost cartoonish strike from midfield that somehow found the net? The back-to-back winner of the FIFA Women’s World Player of the Year award, in 2015-2016, has been coming off the bench for the U.S. in the run-up to the World Cup. At a recent media event, a reporter asked Lloyd if she was comfortable in her role. “No, I’m not,” said Lloyd, 36. “I’m not here to be a super-sub, plain and simple. That’s not the type of person I am.”
“I’m a fighter. I’ll fight to the end,” she says. “My age isn’t a factor. My ability isn’t a factor. I feel the fittest I’ve ever felt. I’ve reinvented my game these last three or four years: instead of the athletic, powerful Carli, just head down and go to goal, I’m a way better soccer player. I feel that my mind is the mind of a 36-year-old at the moment, but my body feels like the body of a 26-year-old.”
Heading into the Women’s World Cup, the U.S. has a pretty nice problem: this is one of its deepest teams ever. Lloyd has made her case for more time on the pitch; she’s scored four goals in her last five games for the team. “There’s no doubt in my mind that it doesn’t matter where you start,” says Lloyd, “it matters where you finish.”
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