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Women’s World Cup primer: USA a contender, with six Tar Heels on roster

Six former UNC players made the U.S. roster: goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris, above, midfielders Tobin Heath and Heather O’Reilly, and defenders Lori Chalupny, Whitney Engen and Meghan Klingenberg.
Six former UNC players made the U.S. roster: goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris, above, midfielders Tobin Heath and Heather O’Reilly, and defenders Lori Chalupny, Whitney Engen and Meghan Klingenberg. Getty Images

After a year of qualifying, two head coaching changes, a round of roster second-guessing, a lawsuit over venues and some injury concerns, the U.S. Women’s National Team will begin its pursuit of a third World Cup championship.

At least one former area player, North Carolina alum Meghan Klingenberg, will be in the starting lineup for the U.S. in its opening match at 7:30 p.m. Monday in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Five of Klingenberg’s fellow Tar Heels also made the U.S. roster, and two of them, wingers Tobin Heath and Heather O’Reilly, should figure prominently in the Americans’ plans as they try to win their first World Cup since 1999. The six Tar Heels amount to more than any other college program, matches their 2003 output and is just two shy of the eight who helped the 1999 team win it all.

A month of soccer will follow, capped by the championship match July 5 in Vancouver’s BC Place Stadium.

Here’s an overview of the world championship of women’s soccer:

What’s new?

The field has been expanded from 16 to 24 teams. Europe, which gained four teams (including one play-in), and Asia, which gained two, were the main beneficiaries.

The six venues – Vancouver, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Montreal and Moncton, New Brunswick – feature artificial turf, a World Cup first for FIFA, the world governing body for soccer. The use of artificial turf provoked a lawsuit last year against FIFA and the Canadian Soccer Association when a group of more than 50 female international players claimed gender inequality, but the lawsuit was dropped in January.

Jill Ellis, a former assistant at N.C. State, is the U.S. head coach. She replaced Tom Sermanni, the former Australia coach who was sacked after the U.S. finished a disappointing seventh in the 2014 Algarve Cup. Sermanni succeeded Pia Sundhage, who led the U.S. to Olympic gold in 2008 and 2012 and a runner-up finish to Japan in the 2011 World Cup aftera penalty kick shootout. Sundhage stepped down to become the coach of her native Sweden, coincidentally drawn in the same Group D with the U.S.

What’s not?

The champion is expected to come from one of the top five ranked teams in the world: Germany, the U.S., France, Japan and Sweden. All of the former finalists, including champions Germany (2003, 2007), the U.S. (1991, 1999), Japan (2011) and Norway (1995), are in the field.

Germany is mathematically the No. 1 team in the world, but the U.S. is considered the favorite, especially with the tournament in North America. Germany is also without two of its biggest stars because of injury (midfielder Nadine Kessler) and pregnancy (midfielder Fatmire Alushi).

Other candidates who could crack the quarterfinals would be No. 8 Canada, No. 10 Australia, No. 11 Norway, No. 12 Netherlands and No. 14 Spain.

Who’s missing?

North Korea, ranked eighth internationally, had several players test positive for performance-enhancing drugs during the 2011 World Cup in Germany and was banned by FIFA from this year’s championship. It’s the first time a women’s team has been banned and marks the first time since 1995 that North Korea won’t be in the Cup field.

Who’s in the Group of Death?

Group D – U.S. (2), Sweden (5), Australia (10) and Nigeria (33) – is the toughest group based on FIFA world rankings.

The easiest group, at least based on rankings, is Group C: Japan (4), Switzerland (19), Ecuador (48) and Cameroon (53).

Group F, with France (3) and England (6), is the only other group with two top-10 teams.

How does the U.S. look?

Strong, despite some questions because of injury and age. It’s a veteran team – 10 players will be 30 or older by the time the tournament ends – with 14 players back from the 2012 London Olympics. Eight players will make their World Cup debuts as the U.S. seeks its first Cup title since Brandi Chastain’s memorable penalty shootout winner in 1999.

The biggest lineup change will be at one of the center backs, where Julie Johnston has taken over for Christie Rampone, who is playing in her fifth World Cup and will turn 40 on June 24. Johnston captained the U.S. to the gold medal in the 2012 U-20 World Cup. Rampone will share time after a series of nagging injuries but will still play a major role.

The other lineup change involves 35-year-old forward Abby Wambach, the all-time international scoring leader with 182 goals. Wambach won’t play every minute of every match, as she did four years ago. She might not even start every match, as she has been tried in a supersub role. Look for Ellis to marshal Wambach’s minutes on the punishing artificial turf, at least through group play.

The U.S. is deep at most positions and spectacular at many. Wambach and fellow forwards Alex Morgan, Sydney Leroux and Amy Rodriguez are proven goal scorers, and Wambach is the best in the world in the air. Carli Lloyd is dangerous in the midfield as well.

The back line was reshuffled after the Olympics because of injuries, but Johnston and Virginia alum Becky Sauerbrunn have stabilized the middle. And goalkeeper Hope Solo is the No. 1 goalkeeper in the world and appears to have overcome her off-field problems, which include a one-month suspension after a domestic violence conviction.

Morgan and Megan Rapinoe, a dynamic attacker on the wing, missed the final tuneup match with South Korea on May 30. Morgan has been sidelined with a bone bruise in her left knee for nearly two months but says she is ready. Rapinoe rested with a thigh injury but should be OK for the opener.

Left off the U.S. roster was former North Carolina star Crystal Dunn, who in 2012 led the Tar Heels to the NCAA championship and won the Hermann Trophy as the college player of the year. Dunn saw a lot of playing time under Sermanni at outside back but was never in the mix with Ellis, getting just 12 minutes of playing time this year, all in one match. Her absence could be noteworthy if the outside attack fails to materialize.

How many Tar Heels on team?

Six former UNC players made the U.S. roster: goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris, midfielders Tobin Heath and Heather O’Reilly, and defenders Lori Chalupny, Whitney Engen and Meghan Klingenberg.

Lori Chalupny

Position: Center back

International caps-goals: 102-10

UNC career (2002-05): Chalupny was a three-time first-team All-America midfielder. The Tar Heels lost only four matches during her career but did not win an NCAA title. A Hermann Trophy finalist in 2005, she ranks among school’s all-time scoring leaders with 30 goals and 32 assists for 92 points.

National team outlook: After a five-year absence from national team duty, Chalupny was called back late in 2014 by Ellis, who moved her from central midfield to outside back to add depth to a position thinned by injury and retirement. This will be her second World Cup, having scored two goals in the 2007 Cup when the U.S. won bronze in China. She will probably see action as a reserve at either outside back.

Whitney Engen

Position: Center back

International caps-goals: 26-3

UNC career (2006-09): Engen did not make first-team All-ACC until her senior year, when she also was named the national player of the year by winning the Honda Sports Award. A midfielder when she came to UNC, Engen played center forward her first two years and scored 12 goals for the 2006 NCAA champions. She moved to center back as a junior and senior, when the Tar Heels posted 36 shutouts and won two more NCAA titles.

National team outlook: Engen started 11 games in 2014 and seven in 2013 but saw her playing time drop off after two early starts this year. She excels in the air at both ends of the field and scored two goals last year on headers for the U.S., so she could be a situational substitution late in a match in Canada.

Ashlyn Harris

Position: Goalkeeper

International caps-starts: 6-2

UNC career (2006-09): Despite an injury-plagued college career, as a senior Harris was named first-team All-ACC, backstopped UNC to the NCAA title and got her first call to the national team. She ranks fifth in career saves at UNC with 109 and eighth in career goals-against average at 0.574 per game.

National team outlook: This is the first World Cup for Harris, who started two matches in 2014, including a 6-0 shutout of Haiti in the CONCACAF Championship. She logged her second career shutout, 1-0 against England, while making two starts during Solo’s suspension this year. Harris successfully fended off a challenge from Alyssa Naeher for the team’s No. 2 goalkeeper spot and might see some time off the bench, especially against Nigeria if the U.S. has already clinched advancement out of group stage.

Tobin Heath

Position: Outside midfielder

International caps-goals: 92-11

UNC career (2006-09): Heath also played for three NCAA championships at UNC and was a three-time first-team All-American. Three times she was a finalist for national player of the year but lost out to a teammate twice. She totaled 19 goals and 32 assists in her career, including a three-goal game against Clemson as a junior.

National team outlook: Heath, an exciting dribbler, can break down defenders one-on-one and has proven adept at setting up teammates with her crosses. She has emerged as a major factor on the wing for the U.S. and will see extensive playing time, especially if Rapinoe isn’t fully recovered from her thigh injury. This will be Heath’s second World Cup. She also played for two gold medal-winning U.S. teams in the Olympics, starting four matches in the 2012 London Games.

Meghan Klingenberg

Position: Outside back

International caps-goals: 34-2

UNC career (2007-10): A versatile member of two NCAA championship teams, Klingenberg was first-team All-ACC and second-team All-America as a senior midfielder. She also started at forward and defender during her career, totaling 18 goals and 24 assists. She was second on the team with 11 assists in 2010.

National team outlook: Klingenberg can play either side but has found a home at left outside back, starting nine of 10 matches this year and 17 of 18 a year ago, when she ranked sixth on the team in minutes. She has also shown more desire to get forward than any of the backs, other than the absent Dunn, and had an eye-opening goal against Haiti during qualifying. Only 5-foot-2, she offsets her lack of size with a hard-working and passionate mentality on the field.

Heather O’Reilly

Position: Outside midfielder

International caps-goals: 219-41

UNC career (2003-06): One of the most productive Tar Heels ever, O’Reilly finished at UNC ranked 10th in goals (59), 12th in assists (49) and 11th in points (167). She also won the 2006 player of the year award, captured NCAA titles in 2003 and 2006, was a unanimous pick as national freshman of the year, and three times was a first-team All-America pick. Many of her goals came when the stakes were highest. She still holds the school record with eight goals in the 2003 NCAA tournament.

National team outlook: It only seems like O’Reilly, at age 30, has been around forever. That’s because she started playing for the national team when she was still in high school, as a member of the gold medal-winning U.S. Olympic team in the 2004 Athens Games. She owns three Olympic gold medals but in World Cup has a bronze and a silver. She can complete the cycle with gold in Canada, where she will be utilized off the bench as a flank attacker.