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Defending champion USA has plenty to prove in 2019 Women's World Cup

Team USA forward Alex Morgan, center, and teammates

Team USA forward Alex Morgan, center, and teammates take part in a training session ahead of the Women's World Cup on June 8, 2019 in Reims, France. Credit: AFP/Getty Images/FRANCOIS NASCIMBENI

REIMS, France — Despite being defending world champions, the top-ranked team on the planet and tournament favorites, the United States doesn’t begin the Women's World Cup as a complacent side.

The Americans still believe they have plenty to prove after their poorest showing in 13 FIFA-sponsored competitions with an embarrassing quarterfinal elimination from the 2016 Rio Olympics.

So, this team enters Tuesday’s Group F match against unfancied Thailand at Stade Auguste Delaune motivated.

"This one I feel like so much left to prove," said midfielder Megan Rapinoe, one of 13 players returning from the 2015 championship team. "Winning the last one feels so far away, and it was different. We had a difficult cycle. We've been up and down with performances, up and down with results. This group has that motivation and desire to win it."

Forward Alex Morgan has liked what she has seen as the USA strives to become the second side to win consecutive titles.

"There is a different feel," she said. "It feels great. This team is ready to go. I feel like we're in peak form and we're ready to find success in this tournament."

After four days of waiting and watching the rest of the 24-team field play, the Americans and Thais will be the last squads to perform.

"The France game, all the games, we have been watching the last few days, has been inspiring for me," said Morgan, noting the French's 4-0 win over South Korea in Friday's opener. "I can't wait to get on the field just seeing everyone play, the excitement on their faces when they score a goal. Just the raw emotion. We were feeling left out."

The USA has questions to answer. Can a shaky backline hold off the top teams in the knockout round? Will Julie Ertz play up to her potential as defensive midfielder? And can the untested keeper Alyssa Naeher prove a worthy successor to the great Hope Solo?

Solo was fired by U.S. Soccer for making derogatory comments during Rio and for several off-the-field incidents. Even in her absence, Solo has stirred the pot. As a BBC commentator, she criticized USA coach Jill Ellis' coaching decisions in Rio.

Asked about the remarks for the first time on Monday, Ellis said she was more concerned about the present than the past.

"Comments are comments," she said. "I feel over the past five years I made a lot of important decisions. I have processes to make those decisions and own those processes. At this point, everything and every focus is about this group of players that are here. Pundits out there, that's part of it."

Rockville Centre native Crystal Dunn, who forged her reputation as a forward or midfielder, is slated to start at left back. Northport's Allie Long, a midfielder, is expected to be a reserve.

"What's been most challenging is that I'm used to people chasing me around and having to mark me and now I'm asked to mark one of the top forwards in the world," Dunn said. "I'm up for the challenge."

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