By Amy Tennery
NEW YORK (Reuters) – Few of the 24 women’s World Cup teams arriving in France for next month’s tournament will bear the weight of expectation quite like reigning champions the United States.
The three-times winners will be aiming not only to retain the trophy they won in 2015 but also build on their legacy as soccer’s dominant women’s team and further cement their role as leaders in the fight for gender equality.
In March, they sued the U.S. Soccer Federation with allegations of gender discrimination with all 28 members of the squad named as plaintiffs in federal court.
But if the pressure on the squad in the build-up to the World Cup is beginning to grate on the players at all, 36-year-old co-captain Carli Lloyd is not showing it.
“Physically, this is the fittest I’ve ever felt, sharpest I’ve ever felt,” 36-year-old midfielder Lloyd said at a media event on Friday. “I feel at ease, I feel calm, I feel hungry, I feel motivated and I just feel excited.”
Lloyd, along with striker Alex Morgan, 29, and attacking midfielder Megan Rapinoe, 33, are among the veterans critical not only on the pitch but off it, as the U.S. bring new faces to the World Cup stage, said head coach Jill Ellis.
“It falls on those players to share their experiences, make sure there’s a push when there needs to be a push and make sure there’s an arm around the shoulder when that’s needed as well,” said Ellis, who oversaw the World Cup triumph four years ago.
The trio of co-captains bring a welcome dose of stability to the team, which failed to medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
“When you look at 2016, we had a lot (of the) players that we have now but those are players that barely had 10 caps on the team up to that point. Now I think (the team) is a little more experienced,” said Morgan, who was in the 2011 and 2015 squads.
“I understand that when you look at literal terms yes we’re defending champions, but I don’t feel like going into this tournament we’re looking at defending anything because this is four years we’re talking about. There’s so many things that can change.”
Defender Becky Sauerbrunn, another stalwart at 33, said the current U.S. team was full of younger players, alongside the more experienced squad members, and they would all be looking to make their own history at the tournament in France.
“This team is (a) new identity. It’s revamped, it’s got a very young, energetic, majority to it,” said Sauerbrunn. “It’s a new team, we’re going to try to create our own legacy.”
Much is expected of 21-year-old forward Mallory Pugh, while 26-year-old defender Crystal Dunn has plenty to prove, having been the last player cut from the 2015 World Cup squad.
The Americans are overwhelming favorites to top their World Cup group, having been handed a favorable draw that includes long-term rivals Sweden alongside Chile and Thailand, who the U.S. will play in their first match on June 11.
“All of us are solely focused on the first game against Thailand and, you know, in a major tournament like this, you can’t get too far ahead of yourself,” said Lloyd, who scored a hat-trick in the first 16 minutes of the final four years ago.
“It’s just kind of weathering the storm. Winning, whether that’s pretty, ugly – just finding a way to win.”
The World Cup kicks off on June 7 when hosts France face South Korea at the Parc des Princes in Paris.
(Reporting by Amy Tennery; Editing by Ken Ferris)