AUCKLAND, New Zealand — The U.S. women’s national team arrived at the 2023 Women’s World Cup 10 days ago. The players have talked about the environment, their teammates and how they fill the days. Now, with less than 24 hours to go before their first game, they finally have an opponent to talk about, that being World Cup debutantes Vietnam.
Manager Mai Duc Chung’s side is something of a wild card, having qualified out of the Asian Confederation via a playoff at the expense of Chinese Taipei and Thailand. Their recent friendly results have been a hodgepodge; there’s no disgrace in losing to Germany 2-1, a match in which the Golden Star Women Warriors showed improved organization and defensive discipline. But that was followed up by a 2-0 defeat to New Zealand and a 9-0 hammering by Spain behind closed doors.
What version of Vietnam is the U.S. expecting? U.S. manager Vlatko Andonovski is clearly consulting his “Worst Case Scenario Handbook.”
“We’re preparing to see the best Vietnam team that has ever been on the field, and if that is the team that we saw against Germany, that’s what we’re preparing for,” Andonovski said at the pregame news conference. “And at the end, I hope we have a good result. I hope we finish the game and win the game with multiple goals, but we won’t know anything until the game is over. All we can do is just prepare the best that we can to be ready for it.”
The U.S. players are of similar minds.
“You can’t take them for granted,” forward Lynn Williams said of Vietnam. “I think that every single opponent we come up against, it’s going to be tough. Every single [team] is qualified for the World Cup, so there’s that.”
Vietnam is under no illusions about the magnitude of its task. Mai referenced the fact that Vietnam is the lowest-ranked team in the tournament, while the U.S. is ranked first. And while he emphasized his team is here to learn, they don’t intend to be pushovers either.
“The U.S. is a very, very strong team. It is like a mountain,” said Mai during Friday’s news conference via a translator. “But it doesn’t mean that we will give up. We will have very suitable tactics so that we can minimize the goals and we can minimize the injuries. And if we can score goals, then it will be great.”
Forward Huynh Nhu added, “At the moment, no fear at all. … I believe all my comrades and friends [are] the same; no fear.”
The expectation is that Vietnam will sit deep, defend stoutly and then try to hit the U.S. on the counterattack through Huynh. It’s an approach the U.S. struggled to cope with in its final pre-World Cup friendly against Wales, when it took two second-half goals from Trinity Rodman to finally get the win. But Williams said the U.S. has to be ready for anything.
“I think that they’re going to play a different style than we are probably used to,” she said. “So it’s just our ability to adapt. Obviously, every single opponent that we play — we scout them, and then half the time it’s not what we scouted. So just trusting each other and being able to adapt on the fly and trust that somebody behind you is seeing something and talking that through. What we’ve been talking about a lot is just we stick to our game plan, what makes us great, and then also having the ability to adapt in the game.”
Four years ago, the U.S. faced Thailand in its opener and went goal wild on its way to 13-0 victory. U.S. defender Crystal Dunn recalls that the two teams met on the final day of the first set of matches. The Americans were pent-up and ready to be let loose, resulting in a lopsided scoreline. This time around, the Americans’ first game comes on Day 3 of the tournament.
“I think this go around, we have that same excitement,” Dunn said. “Everyone’s always asking us questions about the Netherlands and Portugal. I’m like, ‘We have Vietnam. We’ve got to get through this game before we even consider talking about the second game.’ And I think we’re all focused on that first game, that first kickoff.”
Vietnam’s recent results, not to mention the United States’ significant edge in speed and size, have only added another layer of expectation that fans will witness a similarly uneven scoreline Saturday. But Dunn and her teammates are determined to tune out that kind of noise. In 2019, the Americans proved themselves adept at creating a bubble that kept outside distractions and the expectations of others to a minimum; that same approach is being applied this time. Against Vietnam, getting the three points is the objective, no matter how it happens.
“In a World Cup setting vs. a friendly match, it’s really about getting the job done, moving on to the next, and fine-tuning the little things along the way,” Dunn said. “But we’re going to obviously try to put our best foot out there, and it doesn’t always have to result in a 13-0 win. Sometimes you could play well and a team just defends their heart out. And I think that is something that we have to have to anticipate against Vietnam.”
Four years against ago against Thailand, the U.S. took some heat for some seemingly over-the-top celebrations as the goals piled up. Williams, who at age 30 endured a long wait to get to her first World Cup, said that if she gets on the scoresheet, she won’t be holding back.
“You have to remember: It’s the group stage, so goal differential matters,” she said. “And two, I think that you are taking away people’s ability to celebrate maybe their first goals in the World Cup ever. And I just don’t think that we would ever see that on the men’s side of like, ‘Don’t celebrate.’ I think that the most sportsmanlike thing we can do is treat Vietnam, if we’re in that position, like any other opponent that we would play.”