Meet the World Cup favorites: United States poised to defend title
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With the Women's World Cup set to kick off, we're taking an in-depth look at the five perceived favorites by examining their strengths, weaknesses, and title prospects. We close things out with the United States, the tournament favorite and reigning champion.

Fact file

  • FIFA ranking: No. 1
  • Best World Cup finish: Champion (1991, 1999, and 2015)
  • Manager: Jill Ellis

What you need to know

Despite retaining its status as the World Cup favorite - or, at the very least, being on an equal footing with host nation France - the interceding years since the 2015 triumph haven't exactly been smooth sailing for the United States.

A disappointing quarterfinal defeat to Sweden at the 2016 Olympics, followed by constant chopping and changing of the starting XI, saw English-born bench boss Jill Ellis come under criticism. She seemed to quell those worries by settling on a 4-3-3 system that got the best out of her myriad attacking options, but a rocky start to the calendar year has raised fresh concerns.

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There are lingering injury issues for some key players, while breaking down teams that sit deep has sometimes proved difficult.

But it's hard not to be enamored with the sheer talent at Ellis' disposal. The Americans have it in droves. Winning the last four pre-tournament matches by a combined score of 17-0 is nothing to scoff at, even if it has come against weak opposition.

Combined with the winning mentality of a team that's been there, done that, the skill level all over the pitch makes the USWNT the squad to beat at the World Cup yet again.

Group stage outlook

The Group F schedule couldn't have shaken out more favorably for the United States. Opening up against Thailand and Chile - the latter is making its World Cup debut - offers the perfect opportunity for the U.S. to ease into proceedings, before a meeting with familiar foe Sweden forces Ellis' side to ratchet up the intensity heading into the business end of the tournament.

Anything other than nine points from the first three matches will raise eyebrows, such is the standard set by the world's top-ranked squad.

Taking a brief peek ahead, a quarterfinal showdown with France looms large, with the consensus being that the winner of that colossal clash in Paris will go on to hoist the trophy in Lyon on July 7.

Projected starting XI

Key player: Tobin Heath

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Alex Morgan is still the face of the team. Megan Rapinoe provides creativity from the left wing. Lindsey Horan and Rose Lavelle offer attacking impetus and vision while Julie Ertz is the anchor in midfield. Each of them are stars in their own right, and on any other team, would be the standout player. Heck, 2015 World Cup hero Carli Lloyd, who's on fire right now, comes off the bench.

But Tobin Heath is arguably the best player on the roster. She's certainly the most entertaining, and in recent years has become a more complete forward by adding consistent goalscoring to her array of dazzling dribbling tricks. As Morgan has morphed into more of a withdrawn forward who initiates attacks, Heath has stepped up and started finishing them.

Breakout star: Mallory Pugh

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Mallory Pugh is already a household name in the United States, but the 21-year-old forward, who offers a devastating option off the bench, will show the world over the next month why she's regarded by many as the future cornerstone of the American program.

When you get the endorsement of USWNT icon Mia Hamm as an 18-year-old, you know you're doing something right.

With 53 caps and 16 goals under her belt already, it's only a matter of time until the blisteringly fast Colorado native assumes the mantle from Morgan, Heath, and Rapinoe as the team's go-to scoring option.

Fans should be happy if ...

Just win. It's as simple as that. Anything else, even a narrow defeat in the final, would be a massive disappointment for the reigning champion.

Meet the World Cup favorites: United States poised to defend title
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