The USWNT’s first “business trip” is fully underway in New Zealand, with the team now a few days into January camp in Auckland. On Tuesday, they’ll take the short trip down to Wellington for their first friendly against the Football Ferns, before returning to Auckland for the rematch.
As part of the test run for this summer’s World Cup, eight players got their first taste of the local interest as part of an event set up by U.S. Soccer to provide access for New Zealand media.
Alex Morgan, Crystal Dunn, Becky Sauerbrunn, Naomi Girma, Sofia Huerta, Mal Swanson, Lindsey Horan and Rose Lavelle all took their 10-minute turns at each of the media stations in The Cloud, at the end of Queen’s Wharf overlooking the Auckland harbor. On the pier below, a few fishermen tended to a number of rods as ferries passed back and forth out in the water.
Compared to other USWNT media events, it felt relatively calm — for as many cameras that were packed into the room and on the balcony overlooking the water, it was considerably less chaotic than other media days the team has experienced ahead of major tournaments.
But before the first batch of four players arrived, the FIFA Women’s World Cup mascot, Tazuni, waited at the top of the stairs. Everyone wanted a photo with Tazuni (myself included). As Morgan, Dunn, Sauerbrunn and Girma climbed the stairs, Tazuni was waiting, all six feet-plus of penguin mascot topped with blue hair, waving, fully in character. The slightly surreal media grind ahead of a World Cup had officially begun.
As the only American reporter in the room, it was fascinating to see the team and its players through the eyes of the New Zealand writers I was seated with. Everyone else at the table remarked how impressed they were with the set-up — from the written bios and photos of players the U.S. Soccer communications staff had sent out in advance, to the fact that pretty much any topic was on the table. These are all things any U.S. reporter would not only expect, but take for granted.
At our table, some themes started to emerge: The local press was just as captivated by the pressure surrounding the USWNT on their quest to win a third consecutive World Cup and the dynamics of the team. There wasn’t much new ground in this line of questioning, but maybe it was something about the distance, or the fact that it’s finally a World Cup year, or that every session was less about the specifics of the team now and more about the big picture, but there was a reflective nature to each of these 10-minute sessions.
“That’s an expectation that this team has carried for many years, almost since the existence of this team, or a few years after starting with the ‘91 World Cup,” Alex Morgan said. But like every other player, she was ready to also look beyond the USWNT.
“It’s a mentality that has been passed down, but at the same time, there are so many amazing teams in this sport now, countries that are putting so much more effort into their women’s side. You’re seeing that with the expansion of the World Cup to 32 teams, the domestic leagues doing so well around the world, the NWSL going through its 10th season, knowing that there are so many leagues supporting women’s football players around the world. It’s been a really exciting journey to go through this and just know what we’ve fought for and where we are now — and just how incredibly important it is for us to continue to push, raise the bar a little bit on the national team level because every single match is incredibly competitive now, and it wasn’t like that 10 years ago.”
The expanded tournament was a recurring topic, but it also invited questions about competitive balance. As exciting as the debuts of multiple countries in this tournament will be, it could reopen the same conversation from 2019 if there are lopsided results.
“There was so much commotion and talk about the Thailand game (at the 2019 World Cup),” Crystal Dunn said, “but at the end of the day, a team like Thailand is in a World Cup for the very first time, people know about that team now. That’s the biggest takeaway from that moment.”
For Dunn, the expansion to 32 teams was crucial for global exposure and awareness, something the women’s game still needs.
Becky Sauerbrunn echoed those exact sentiments.
“With that Thailand game, we have to remember that Thailand tied Australia in the qualifiers for that tournament,” she said “On any given day, a team can beat another team.”
Sauerbrunn also brought up the additional eyeballs a World Cup draws, but continued, “Now you’ve got money from FIFA being earmarked to these teams that will hopefully go into the infrastructure of the system, potentially creating a domestic league.”
More attention, more investment, more infrastructure are all wins, even if they may not be perfect at this moment in time.
And there is something very specific to the World Cup bump.
“These tournaments are what changes everything people see,” said Lindsey Horan. “Some of the best players, some of the best players on the Ferns,” she added, nodding at the table, “people go and Google, look it up. This is what these World Cups are meant for. It puts these players on a stage that they’ve waited to be on for four years. I really hope that (level of awareness) changes for certain teams, and for teams that have never been in a World Cup, as well.”
Whether it was reflecting on Thailand, or these two upcoming friendlies against the Ferns — which could have some lopsided results of their own, with many key New Zealand players not released by their clubs due to these two games taking place outside a FIFA window — or the USWNT’s group-stage opponents aside from The Netherlands, there was a clear ethos and respect: No opponent is taken lightly, no matter what the expectations are for the USWNT.
“We always think teams are going to put their best performance out against us,” Dunn said. “We’ve seen it before where we’re expected to always win, we’re expected to dominate games, and we don’t take our foot off the pedal. It doesn’t matter who we’re playing against. It’s always about us, it’s about our preparation, it’s about us fine-tuning things and getting better and better. It can’t be about the outside noise of what people think and expect us to do. It’s about who we are as a team, and who we want to be. And we’re always striving to be the best versions of ourselves as players.”
Outside noise always seems to be a topic that comes up for the USWNT in a World Cup year (nothing might beat the 2019 World Cup, considering the number of off-the-field narratives swirling about the team, from the fight for equal pay to the Thailand game to Twitter beef with the then-President to the completely absurd Hotelgate), but in this particular case, there’s still some fresh memories from how the fall went sideways for the team with their three-game losing streak.
“We had some highs (in 2022), and we had some really low lows,” Rose Lavelle said. “I’ve always felt this personally, and I think on a team level too, you learn the most about yourself in those moments. Obviously, when we lose three in a row, there’s always going to be a lot around it. Nobody has higher expectations for us than us, so it was a tough period.”
As uncomfortable as that three-game stretch was, as much as they didn’t want to go through it, Lavelle firmly believed it will benefit the team heading into 2023.
“You see everything on social media saying it’s the first time we’ve lost three games in a row since 1993, and when you’re seeing that as a player, it’s hard not to let it get to you,” said Sofia Huerta. “During that time, we addressed that in the locker room. We all talked about how people are going to say what they’re going to say, but we know what we’re capable of, which is what you saw in that last game versus Germany.”
Huerta pointed to the team’s resiliency as a factor for the USWNT’s current and historical success. The break between those fall friendlies and the World Cup year allowed a re-focusing, though she noted the team is still watching film from the final Germany game. “There are things we can get better at,” she said.
January camp has always had its own tradition in the USWNT year — the new start, a chance to settle back in — and once again the team is taking the opportunity to head to the World Cup host country just like they did in 2019. Still, as Dunn pointed out, “It’s the first camp of the year. It’s a great time for people to come back in and reset after spending some time off in the offseason.”
Naomi Girma, coming off her rookie and defender of the year performance in the NWSL, already seemed a seasoned pro at the particular challenge of a media day. “Rosters change for most camps,” she noted, when asked about the number of players returning from injury between this camp and potentially over the next two FIFA windows.
“Change is normal, and something that’s expected on a team like this one,” Girma continued. “It’s great to have (Emily Sonnett and Lynn Williams) back, I’m excited that they’re both back. But each roster, each camp, our goal is always to focus on the group that we have there, and then move on from there.”
There are specific benefits to being here in Auckland, followed by the pair of friendlies at Sky Stadium and Eden Park. Sauerbrunn pointed out that FIFA is mandating the team travels from their Auckland base camp to their tournament matches on matchday minus-one; the USWNT is replicating that travel to and from Wellington during this trip as they’ve never done it before as a team. There’s also benefits to getting in some time at all the various sites ahead of the summer (technically winter here, which caused multiple players to turn the tables on the local media to try to get a better sense of what weather to expect for matches).
“Getting a feel for even the grass of the stadiums, the little things that maybe to an outsider don’t seem so important, but for us, it’s the difference between an own goal or not,” Sauerbrunn said.
“You also get a sense of the people in the country, and the culture. That’s really important, to be respectful as Americans coming in here, and you’re doing the right thing and you’re representing the USA really well. But you’re also representing New Zealand well, in that you’re bringing eyes to this country, and so you want to do it as well as possible.”
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(Photo: Hannah Peters/Getty Images; design: Sam Richardson)
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