AUCKLAND, New Zealand (AP) — In the words of Vietnam's coach, facing the U.S. national team in the Women's World Cup is a daunting quest, something “like a mountain,” said Mai Duc Chung.
Vietnam makes its World Cup debut Saturday against the United States, the heavy favorites to win the tournament for an unprecedented third time. The Americans enter Saturday's game in Auckland at Eden Park with the same confidence it carried through its last two World Cup-winning runs.
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“The U.S. is a very, very strong team. It is like a mountain. But it doesn’t mean that we will give up," said Mai.
But few believe Vietnam has a chance. The national team is very similar to Thailand, which the Americans thumped 13-0 in the opener at the World Cup four years ago in France. The United States went on to beat the Netherlands 2-0 for its second consecutive World Cup and fourth overall, the most of any nation.
“Fear? We Believe,” said captain Nuynh Nhu. “We've already prepared. Nothing to fear, nothing to be afraid of.”
The Americans wouldn't dare discount an opponent, particularly after the criticism it took for running up the score against Thailand four years ago in France. They are taking Vietnam in the opening game quite seriously.
“We want to show our respect by giving our best game, and we know that they'll do the same for us,” captain Lindsey Horan said Friday, the eve of the match. “I think everyone always gives us their best game.”
The United States has a new cast of players at this World Cup, including 14 who are making their first appearance in soccer's biggest tournament. Among them is 18-year-old phenom Alyssa Thompson and up-and-comer Trinity Rodman, the 20-year-old daughter of former NBA star Dennis Rodman.
Another quickly rising star is Sophia Smith. Just 22, she was named National Women's Soccer League's Most Valuable Player and U.S. Soccer’s Player of the Year last year.
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Coach Vlatko Andonovski infused the United States with young talent after the team finished with a disappointing bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympics.
“I think that we have a very good mix of young, energetic, enthusiastic players, and experienced players that have been through tough games, that have been in big tournaments and know how to win big games,” Andonovski said.
Megan Rapinoe is among the veterans on the squad and should make her 200th appearance for the national team if she plays against Vietnam. Rapinoe, 38, announced before the team left for New Zealand that this would be her last World Cup and she would retire from her professional team at the end of the season.
Rapinoe and Rose Lavelle were both limited by injuries in the run-up to the tournament, but Andonovski said both are available to play.
There were still several other players that weren't available for the U.S. roster. Mallory Swanson, the team's top scorer this year, injured her patella tendon in her left knee during an exhibition match against Ireland in early April.
Catarina Macario tore an ACL last year while playing for the French club Lyon and was unable to recover in time. But the biggest blow was the loss of captain Becky Sauerbrunn, who announced that a right foot injury suffered in April would keep her out of the World Cup.
Also in Group E are the Netherlands and Portugal, which meet Sunday in Dunedin. Portugal is also making its first World Cup appearance.
The teams play all of their matches in New Zealand, which is co-hosting the tournament with Australia. Should the United States top the group, the team will head to Sydney for the round of 16.
Saturday’s game will be the first meeting between the United States and Vietnam. The Vietnamese lost two exhibition matches ahead of the tournament and fell 9-0 to Spain in a closed-door tune-up match in Auckland last Friday.
Andonovski was asked what would happen if the United States lost to Vietnam, similar to how Argentina lost to Saudi Arabia at the beginning of the men's World Cup in Qatar last year. Argentina recovered to win the World Cup.
“Then we'll have to win the next two games and move forward,” the coach said, “and hopefully end up like Argentina.”