USWNT schedule set for World Cup

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The pathway for the US women’s national soccer team to win an unprecedented third consecutive World Cup title next year will include a group-stage showdown with the country it defeated in the 2019 final, the Netherlands, and could feature a round-of-16 clash with second-ranked Sweden.

Otherwise, the top-ranked Americans welcomed the results of the draw conducted Saturday in New Zealand, which will co-host the tournament with Australia.

As the top seed in Group E, the United States will play all first-round matches in New Zealand and potentially all but one in that country before the Aug. 20 final in Sydney.

The US opener July 22 in Auckland is against first-time participant Vietnam, followed five days later by a clash in Wellington with the eighth-ranked Netherlands, which lost to the United States, 2-0, in the 2019 final in France.

Group play will conclude Aug. 1 in Auckland against the winner of a playoff in February between No. 23 Portugal, no. 41 Thailand and No. 58 Cameron.

“We got a good but somewhat tough draw,” US coach Vlatko Andonovski said. “I’m excited about it. This is when the real preparation starts.”

With a 20-1-3 record in group play, the United States is not expected to have much trouble earning one of the group’s two places in the knockout stage. If rankings hold form, it would face No. 14 Italy, the second-best team in Group G, in the round of 16 in Sydney.

By finishing second in the group, however, the Americans would likely play Group G favorite Sweden, which routed them, 3-0, in the 2021 Olympic group stage. The United States and Sweden met in the group stage the previous five World Cups, with the Americans winning three, losing one and tying one.

“I’m confident about the group, but it’s really not about the group, because there’s a lot of games to be played in a World Cup, and the competition just keeps getting stronger and better,” said former US star Carli Lloyd, who co-hosted the draw ceremony in Auckland.

The Americans were thrilled with the overall bracket: Until the final, they would avoid European champion England, 2021 Olympic gold medalist Canada and contenders Germany, France, Brazil and Australia. The top teams on their side of the bracket are Sweden, Japan and Spain.

Six stadiums in Australia and four in New Zealand will host the 64 matches. All but three participants are set. A 10-nation playoff Feb. 18-23 in Auckland will complete the 32-team field, the largest since FIFA launched a women’s championship in 1991.

Though the Americans will arrive at the World Cup as one of the favorites, they’ve got their work cut out for them. Early this month, they lost consecutive games for the first time in 5½ years, falling against fourth-ranked England, 2-1, and No. 6Spain, 2-0. They’ll resume preparations with two friendlies against third-ranked Germany: Nov. 10 in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Nov. 13 in Harrison, NJ

The run-up to the World Cup will include two friends in February and two in April. The opponents and venues have not been finalized.

“We have a lot of work to do in the next year,” US midfielder Lindsey Horan said. “We need to be better. We need to learn and grow. Hopefully, it’s going to improve a lot in the next year.”

FIFA ranking in parenthesis

Group A: New Zealand (22), Norway (12), Philippines (53), Switzerland (21).

Group B: Australia (13), Ireland (24), Nigeria (45), Canada (7).

Group C: Spain (6), Costa Rica (37), Zambia (81), Japan (11).

Group D: England (4), playoff winner*, Denmark (18), China (15).

Group E: United States (1), Vietnam (34), Netherlands (8), playoff winner**.

Group F: France (5), Jamaica (43), Brazil (9), playoff winner***.

Group G: Sweden (2), South Africa (54), Italy (14), Argentina (29).

Group H: Germany (3), South Korea (17), Colombia (27), Morocco (76).

*Chile (38), Senegal (84) or Haiti (56).

**Portugal (23), Cameroon (58) or Thailand (41).

***Taiwan (40), Paraguay (51), Papua New Guinea (50) or Panama (57).

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