United States drawn into Women’s World Cup group of death

The United States women’s national team learned its path to ending a 16-year Women’s World Cup draught on Saturday, when the draw for the 2015 edition of the world’s biggest women’s sports event was held in Canada.

The Americans were drawn into Group D, a brutal lot, which will pit the world’s longtime No. 1 team against Australia, Sweden and Nigeria. They play Australia first in Winnipeg on June 8; followed by Sweden, also in Winnipeg on June 12; and Nigeria in Vancouver on June 16.

The USA’s batch of opponents immediately was labeled the "group of death" and rightly so. Australia are a rising power in women’s soccer and expect to improve on their quarterfinals berth in the past two World Cups. Sweden, the hugely seasoned European powerhouse, are managed by former USA coach Pia Sundhage, who led the Americans to the past two Olympic gold medals and the 2011 Women’s World Cup final, which was lost to Japan on penalties. She knows this team as well as anyone. Nigeria, meanwhile, are easily the best team in Africa, having won nine African Championships and reached all seven World Cups.

“Certainly, we’re in the toughest group,” USA head coach Jill Ellis said. “I think it’s going to be a physically challenging group and our depth is going to come into play.”

Ellis took a positive approach to what is undeniably difficult news. “I actually think having tougher games in the first round of a major competition will prepare us for the knockout stages,” she said. “We’ve got to hit the ground running. There is not any slow introduction to this World Cup.”

To advance to the Round of 16, teams will have to place as one of the top two teams in their group after a round robin of group play. Failing that, the four best third-place teams will move on as well. Once they are in the knockout stage, it is a single-elimination tournament.

As usual, the Americans are considered among the favorites to win the World Cup, along with usual suspects Germany and defending champions Japan. The hosts Canada and France, Sweden and Brazil are considered outsiders. The USA sports more depth in every line than any other country and have a wealth of experience within the team. Playing so close to home, anything but a record third World Cup title will be considered a major disappointment. But then that also was true at the last three editions of this tournament, none of which they won. 

The other groups for the seventh edition of the Women’s World Cup, expanded from 16 to 24 countries for the first time, are as follows:

The 2015 Women’s World Cup kicks off on June 6 and runs through the July 5 final. All of the games will be aired live on the FOX Sports family of networks.

”As far as playing Pia, we had a little giggle about it this morning that we would be in the same group and it turned out to be prophetic,” Ellis, a former assistant to Sundhage, said during a conference call. ”For me, it’s actually easier playing a friend. I have tremendous respect for her. I just know it’s going to be a great game, and we’re both going to prepare our teams the best we can and let them duel it out.”

The US women are making their seventh World Cup appearance. The team won the inaugural tournament in 1991, added its second title in 1999, but has struggled since with a pair of third-place finishes and runner-up.

Featuring an expanded field of 24 teams, next year’s World Cup will be played in six Canadian cities from June 6 through July 5. The field includes eight teams making their World Cup debuts.

But the US women have their work cut out for them. No other group includes two teams ranked among the top five in the world.

”It’s going to be a physically challenging group, and I certainly think our depth is going to come into play for us again,” Ellis said. ”We’ve played Sweden and Australia many times, and I know we’ve played Nigeria in the World Cup, but they’re all presenting slightly different challenges.”

If the Americans win their group, they would play a third-place team from Group B, E or F on June 22 in Edmonton, then be in position to go to Ottawa for a quarterfinal four days later and a semifinal in Montreal on June 30.

The World Cup will be played on artificial turf, which FIFA never has condoned at the men’s World Cup.

A group of players, including U.S. forward Abby Wambach and German goalkeeper Nadine Angerer, brought a discrimination claim against FIFA and the Canadian Soccer Association before the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario. There is no timetable for a decision.

At a news conference before the draw, FIFA Secretary General Jerome Valcke was adamant that the event would go on as planned, dismissing claims that playing on an artificial surface amounts to gender discrimination.

Valcke said FIFA is advancing the Women’s World Cup with increased prize money — to $15 million — and the use of goal-line technology, which was used in the men’s World Cup this year in Brazil.

Players say artificial turf can cause injuries and changes the way the game is played because it can affect ball movement. But they also claim that playing on fake grass amounts to discrimination because FIFA always has insisted on grass for the men’s tournament. At the 1994 World Cup, grass was installed for the men at Giants Stadium in New Jersey and the Pontiac Silverdome in Michigan, where artificial turf was used by the local NFL teams.

FIFA and the CSA say the artificial turf is FIFA-approved for top international competitions. Host Canada has stipulated all along it planned to play the tournament matches on turf. Canada, along with the United States, Germany, defending champion Japan, Brazil and France, were seeded and all placed in separate groups so as not to meet in the initial stage.

The eighth-ranked Canadians topped Group A and will face No. 14 China in their opening match on June 6 in Edmonton, Alberta. The group includes No. 19 New Zealand and No. 15 Netherlands, playing in its first World Cup.

Second-ranked Germany, which won the title in 2003 and 2007, is in Group B and opens against Ivory Coast on June 7 in Ottawa, Ontario. Ninth-ranked Norway and Thailand round out the group.

Japan leads Group C, which will open against Switzerland in Vancouver on June 6. Cameroon and Ecuador, both making Women’s World Cup debuts, also are in the group.

Sixth-ranked Brazil and veteran Marta, seeking a first World Cup title, join South Korea, Spain and Costa Rica in Group E. The Brazilians meet South Korea in the opening match on June 6 in Montreal.

The final group was led by No. 4 France, playing in its third World Cup, along with No. 7 England, Colombia and Mexico, with an intriguing opener between England and France in Moncton, New Brunswick, on June 9.

The draw was held Saturday at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec.

The US team was in Brazil on Saturday to prepare for the International Tournament of Brasilia, a four-team competition at the National Stadium Mane Garrincha. The Americans face China on Dec. 10, Brazil four days later and Argentina on Dec. 17.

The championship and third-place game is Dec. 21.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.