By Steve Keating
WINNIPEG (Reuters) - The United States may be one the hot favorites to win the Women's World Cup but first the Americans will have to survive the 'Group of Death' which begins on Monday with a tricky test against Australia.
No nation will face a tougher road to the final than those in Group D with three teams ranked in the world top 10, the U.S. (2), Sweden (5), Australia (10) and top African nation Nigeria (33).
For four years, the Americans have been haunted by a heartbreaking loss to Japan on penalty kicks in the final of the last World Cup in Germany.
"Germany for so many of the players was one of the greatest experiences of our lives and probably one of the hardest," recalled U.S. midfielder Lauren Holiday. "I think the second that the game against Japan ended, we wanted to go to another World Cup as soon as possible."
While the U.S. are regarded as women's soccer superpower, winning the last three Olympic golds, they have not enjoyed the same success at the World Cup, not having hoisted the global trophy since 1999.
Then it was Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain leading the way. This time it is another generation and perhaps the last chance for striker Abby Wambach, one of the greatest American players of all-time.
A win by the U.S. over Australia on Monday, combined with a Sweden victory over Nigeria, would set up an intriguing showdown with former coach Pia Sundhage, who may know the U.S. players better than her own, in a match that could decide top spot in the group.
Before returning home to take over the Swedish national team, Sundhage led the Americans to two Olympic gold medals and a runner-up finish in the 2011 World Cup.
But for now the Americans must focus on the 10th ranked Matildas, who are capable of derailing U.S. ambitions.
While the U.S. are packed with some of women's soccer's biggest names like Wambach and Hope Solo, Australian names are largely unknown beyond their own borders.
That could change during the World Cup with speedy striker Lisa De Vanna and diminutive midfielder Katrina Gorry ready to make a big splash.
"If we can bring our ‘A’ game that day, I’m sure we’re going to be a big rival to the U.S., said Australian coach Alen Stajcic. "I’m sure they’re going to know they’re in a game."
(Editing by Gene Cherry)