Women’s World Cup: Americans don’t intend to leave trophy in France

The players for the United States women’s national soccer team who last hoisted the World Cup trophy say they're not going to France to defend that title -- they're going to get another one.

And they're not leaving without it.

Twenty-three women are suiting up for America in a bid to nab rare back-to-back titles -- only done previously in the women’s game by Germany in 2003 and 2007. To achieve the feat, the U.S. team is preparing for a different level of play than what they saw four years ago in Canada.

“It’s day and night,” Carli Lloyd, who is playing in her fourth tournament, told Fox News during a recent media day at the Twitter offices in New York City. “The gap is closing. It’s getting tougher and tougher to win. That’s what we want to see. We don’t want it to be easy.”

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Since lifting the trophy four years ago, the American women have mostly maintained their dominance. They've won the majority of their games since then and have kept their No. 1 ranking.

They go into the month-long tournament as one of the favorites to win the whole thing -- but they acknowledge it won’t be easy.

“I think it’s going to be a remarkable world cup. The level of competition four years on from the last one has exponentially increased,” coach Jill Ellis, who is missing five of the players she fielded at the last world cup finals, said at media day. “Different teams are now rising and it’s going to be a very open world cup and we are excited going out there and attacking it.”

Ellis' roster is still stacked with veterans of World Cups past, but also infused with 11 talented “newcomers” making their Cup debuts.

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“It’s a different type of team – new players, a good mix of younger and older,” veteran defender Ali Krieger told Fox News. “We have a new vision, a new structure, and a new plan.”

Krieger, 34, was a surprise choice onto the roster after not being part of the women’s team for more than two years. Earlier this year, Ellis brought her back to the fold to help strengthen the depth of the backline and it was just in time for the Cup.

“Being able to stay ready was really important to me,” Krieger said. “I really missed the atmosphere and playing in a high level with them – not that I wasn’t at home with my club team [Orlando Pride]. I really felt I should have been there, so it’s really nice to be back.”

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On the 20th anniversary of the 1999 World Cup, when the U.S. won after a penalty shootout against China, the expectations and the pressure on the Americans to mesmerize audiences in France and bring back the trophy is not lost on the players, who understand that the tournament -- and the media spotlight on it -- is also a platform to raise awareness of and appreciation for the women's game to new levels.

Goalie Ashlyn Harris said the current team would not be doing the 1999ers "justice" if they just "showed up and played" instead of carrying the torch they started so many years ago.

"We know there's been a ton of pioneers in our sport who have allowed me to sit at this chair and we don't take that lightly," she told Fox News. "But we also know the obligation that comes with that - that we have to keep pushing boundaries and we have to keep fighting for women in sports, women's equality. All of these aspects that we truly believe in."

She added: "We have to continue to fight for what's right and continue propelling, pushing, the next generation and the future that comes after us."

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That fight includes pressuring both U.S. soccer and FIFA to tackle the huge gender disparity in investment. In March 2019, 28 members of the women's soccer team filed a gender discrimination lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation citing issues with compensation, working conditions and medical treatment received.

FIFA doubled the prize money for the women to $30 million this year from the amount four years ago and the amount for the winning team to $4 million. That still remains a fraction of the money at last year's men's World Cup, where France received $38 million from a $400 million pool. FIFA has raised the men's pool to $440 million for 2022.

"I would like to see a major paradigm shift and sort of a major overhaul," said Megan Rapinoe, one of the team's most outspoken players, who has said she would not accept a White House invitation if the team brought home the trophy. "There's been such a lack of investment for all of these years and such a lack of care and attention that doubling or tripling or quadrupling investment, care, attention to the women's game I think would be appropriate."

Victor Montagliani, the vice president of FIFA and president of CONCACAF, told Fox News recently that sport's organizing body has started to tackle the issue, but acknowledged that more needs to be done.

“Perhaps, it hasn’t, but at least it’s being addressed, and I think over time we’re going to see that gap narrow and narrow," he said.

The USSF countered that pay and benefits for members of the men's and women's teams, bargained by separate unions, can't be compared and said there was no basis for allegations of illegal conduct.

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The team, however, is not allowing the off-field issues and pressures to enter the locker room or the field of play.

"It's not this divide. It's very much a cohesive unit," Ellis said. "It doesn't enter the locker room. It doesn't enter the meeting space. We're working together and making this work and, yeah, I understand. I'm a woman. I have a young daughter. I understand a lot of the bigger social issues out there in terms of that. But I also know right now the job is to get the team focused and they are focused."

Instead, they have turned their full attention to on-field matters, such as tactics and formations, ahead of the Group F opener against Thailand.

“[We’re] just focusing on the first game. You can’t think beyond Thailand,” Harris said. “Nothing is guaranteed. We are really focused on what’s in front of us. There’s no re-dos, no second chances. We are up for the challenge and the task.”

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The U.S. women play 34th-ranked Thailand on June 11 about 80 miles northeast of Paris in Reims. Their other Group F matchups include Chile (ranked No. 39) and longtime rivals Sweden (ranked No. 9). All games can be watched live on FOX, FS1 and the Fox Sports app.