By Amy Tennery

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The United States will have a super-sized target on their backs when the Women’s World Cup kicks off later this month, with their opponents pulling out all the stops to derail their hope of an unprecedented third consecutive title.

The top-ranked Americans will attempt a feat unequalled in the men’s or women’s game when the tournament begins on July 20 in Australia and New Zealand.

The U.S. begin their campaign against Vietnam on July 22 before facing the Netherlands, who they beat 2-0 in the 2019 final, and Portugal in Group E.

“Teams fear playing the U.S.,” retired U.S. great Carli Lloyd, an analyst for Fox Sports at the finals, told Reuters.

“What’s been passed down from generation to generation is that DNA, that mentality of just never giving up.”

But while some teams may fear the Americans, three critical contenders figured out how to beat them in the last year.

The U.S. suffered three straight defeats for the first time since 1993 in October and November when they fell to rivals and European Champions England and then lost to Spain and Germany.

They regrouped in the New Year, beating Olympic champions Canada, 2011 World Cup winners Japan and Brazil to lift the SheBelieves Cup thanks in large part to the attacking strength of Mallory Swanson.

But weeks after fans embraced Swanson as their new hero she tore her patella tendon, ruling her out of the tournament.

“If you had asked me before Mal Swanson went down, I would have said, (the U.S. have) probably the highest potential possibility of winning that I have felt ever since I played,” said Briana Scurry, whose critical penalty kick save at the 1999 World Cup helped the U.S. to their second title.

Scurry, the host of the “Counterattack” podcast, told Reuters the tournament winners could come down to which team’s players stay fit the longest.

“It’s going to be really, really difficult. But I’m never going to bet against my team,” she added.

Head coach Vlatko Andonovski will rely on a young cohort to take the wheel, with 22-year-old National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) MVP Sophia Smith complementing veteran Alex Morgan.

Trinity Rodman, the highest-paid player in the NWSL, is also expected to be a key piece of the U.S. attack at 21 years old, while fellow forward and teen phenom Alyssa Thompson is the youngest in the squad at 18 having made only three appearances.

Megan Rapinoe, top scorer at the 2019 finals, returns for her fourth World Cup.

(Reporting by Amy Tennery in New York; Editing by Ken Ferris)

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