USA head coach Jill Ellis (pictured) believes that a difficult group stage will benefit her team as it progresses in the 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup. (Photo: Mexsport)
OTTAWA -- Though the United States is the top-ranked women's team in the world, it will certainly find the group stage of the 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup (WWC) to be a challenge.
The CONCACAF champion was drawn Saturday into Group D – also known as the “Group of Death” -- along with Sweden (Europe), Australia (Asia) and Nigeria (Africa).
U.S. head coach Jill Ellis called it "the toughest group.”
Despite the daunting opposition, she expressed confidence that her players would rise to the occasion.
"I haven't obviously spoken to the team, but I can just tell their reaction," said Ellis. "It is motivating that we want to continue to get better. We want to hit the ground running. There's no slow introduction to this World Cup. They will be fired up. They will be excited."
The two-time world champion will open the competition with games in Winnipeg against Australia (June 8) and Sweden (June 12), before finishing up in Vancouver against Nigeria (June 16). The top two teams in each of the six groups of the 24-team tournament will book automatic spots in the Round of 16. The next four teams with the highest points qualify for the second round.
"We've played Australia many times and I know we've played Nigeria in the World Cup," Ellis noted. "They're all presenting slightly different challenges. The next six months of our preparation will get us ready for this. We historically have tough games in the first round in major competitions. It will prepare us for the knockout stages."
Sweden is coached by Pia Sundhage, who directed the Americans to back-to-back gold medals in the 2008 and 2012 Summer Olympics and to a runner-up finish at the 2011 WWC in Germany.
Ellis told Sundhage prior to the draw, "Ah, we're going to be in the same group."
"It turned out to be prophetic," the 48-year-old commented. "For me, it is easier playing a friend. I have tremendous respect for her and just know it's going to be a great game."
The Americans have incentive to top their group because they would not have to meet another first-place side until the semifinals, while also getting an extra day of rest.
"We want to be tough in our group for those reasons," Ellis finished. "Psychologically, you want to be tough in your group, so you feel good about going into the knockout stages. The advantages of finishing first, hopefully, that they play out. But again, you never know what happens in the other group"