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As the Women's World Cup kicks off, the U.S. hopes to win its third in a row

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

New Zealand, one of the nations co-hosting the ninth Women's World Cup has opened the tournament with a stunning one-to-nothing win against some former champions - Norway. Before this, my co-host, A Martínez spoke with NPR's Laurel Wamsley to walk us through the tournament.

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Laurel, this World Cup is happening in six Australian venues, four in New Zealand. It's a minimum three-hour plane ride between the two countries. Is that presenting any logistical challenges?

LAUREL WAMSLEY, BYLINE: Well, World Cups nearly always involve a good amount of travel, though during the group stage of this one, teams will play all of their games in either Australia or New Zealand, and each team will have a base camp that they will return to between matches. This is actually the first time the women's tournament has been played in the Southern Hemisphere, and it's going to be during the winter in the host countries. The cities hosting the matches have fairly mild winters, but the weather for the first three U.S. games could be pretty chilly and quite windy. There's been some photos released of the U.S. team training in Auckland this week, and the players were wearing tights and puffy coats.

For U.S. fans, the main logistical issue is going to be the time difference. The first two U.S. games will be easy to watch - 9 p.m. Eastern - but the third against Portugal will be at 3 a.m. Eastern time, and lots of other games will be in the middle of the night. So if you want to watch a lot of this tournament live, you're going to have to be committed.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. Got it. So let's talk about the odds for the U.S. women who are the juggernaut of the sport. They've won the last two World Cups. Are they expected to maybe start printing those three-peat T-shirts?

WAMSLEY: Well, the U.S. jerseys already have four stars on them. That's because they've won the Cup four times, far more than any other country. They've been ranked No. 1 for years, and they are, again, the bookmaker's favorite to win this time. But I'll say, victory is far from a sure thing this time. No country has won the World Cup three times in a row, and the U.S. arrived in New Zealand without several key players who are injured, including longtime captain Becky Sauerbrunn. Still, the U.S. has nine players returning from the team that took home the Cup in 2019, including Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan, Rose Lavelle, Julie Ertz. But Rapinoe and Lavelle are recovering from injuries, themselves, so the U.S. will need to rely on younger players with less international experience if they want to go far.

MARTÍNEZ: All right, so who are some of the new faces to watch for?

WAMSLEY: There are 14 World Cup rookies on this U.S. squad, and you can expect them to come out blazing. One to watch is Trinity Rodman, a 21-year-old forward for the Washington Spirit. She was Rookie of the Year in the National Women's Soccer League, and she just scored two goals against Wales in the team's last tuneup before the Cup. She also happens to be the daughter of former NBA star Dennis Rodman. Then there's Sophia Smith. She's a forward for the Portland Thorns. She was the MVP of the NWSL last year and U.S. soccer's player of the year, and she's just 22. She's the focus of a new Nike ad that's sure to be on heavy rotation during this Cup. The U.S. will play Vietnam on Friday night in its first game of the group stage before taking on the Netherlands and Portugal in the days ahead.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, you mentioned Vietnam. That's going to be a history-making match for Vietnam.

WAMSLEY: That's right. It's their first World Cup. The tournament has expanded to 32 teams this year. And so they're one of eight countries making their World Cup debuts. The others are the Philippines, Ireland, Zambia, Haiti, Portugal, Panama and Morocco.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. Who else could make a run for the Cup?

WAMSLEY: England is certainly positioned to go far. The Lionesses, as they're known, won the European championship last summer. The Netherlands were runners-up to the U.S. at the 2019 Cup, and most of that team is returning. But they'll be without their star striker, and they got the unlucky draw of being in a group with the U.S. Canada is back after winning at the Olympics in Tokyo two years ago. Spain, Germany, Sweden - they are always strong contenders. It's likely the last cup for Brazilian star, Marta, so expect Brazil to try to deliver, as Argentina did for Lionel Messi. And Australia has one of the world's very best players, the striker Sam Kerr. She's hoping to bring in a win on home soil, and you can expect her to be the face of the tournament.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's Laurel Wamsley. Thanks for the preview.

WAMSLEY: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF COI LERAY SONG, "PLAYERS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Laurel Wamsley is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She reports breaking news for NPR's digital coverage, newscasts, and news magazines, as well as occasional features. She was also the lead reporter for NPR's coverage of the 2019 Women's World Cup in France.