Soccer  

USA starts Women’s World Cup prep with New Zealand friendlies

The United States women are beginning the run-in to this summer’s World Cup with a pair of friendlies against New Zealand — one of the host countries along with Australia for the 2023 showpiece event.

And, according to veteran Becky Sauerbrunn, the Jan. 18 and 21 matches aren’t just warmup games, they are “really important” as the U.S. looks to defend its 2019 title.

“It is extremely important,” Sauerbrunn said on Monday. “I think it’s really difficult to replicate what you are going to see at a World Cup. So, to be able to come here six months prior and to play in the stadiums, to get a feel for the town and cities that you are going to play in, it’s really important and super helpful for us.”

The U.S. beat the Netherlands in the final in France in 2019 to win its fourth World Cup crown and now faces a field loaded with top teams — like Germany, Brazil and 2022 Women’s Euro champions England — as it looks to lift a third-consecutive trophy.

Vlatko Andonovski’s team has been training Down Under for the last 12 days and is taking on a New Zealand side its faced regularly in recent years, but knowing two of its first three group matches will be played in the same stadiums this summer adds an extra level of significance to the preparations.

“Hopefully we’ll see a great turnout at the games,” Sauerbrunn said. “I know the Kiwis have just continued to just do so well. Over the last five or 10 years that we’ve played them quite a few times, and I know a lot of the players on the team as well.

“But having a World Cup here on home soil, it just puts a lot more excitement but also pressure on them as well just to make things even better, to take it a few more notches up.

“So, for us to be here, I hope that it continues to create buzz and excitement for the World Cup and for women’s football. And I think that we are doing that, but we are here for one thing and that’s to get preparation in for the World Cup and to have two games that help us take two steps forward as we inch closer.”

The U.S. have been drawn in Group E with the Netherlands, Vietnam and the winner of a playoff that has yet to be determined. World Cup play begins on July 20 and concludes with the final on Aug. 20 at Stadium Australia in Sydney.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this story.