HARRISON, N.J. – It's a quadrennial ritual. Suddenly, as if on command, the country begins paying attention to its national women's soccer team again, after having tuned out sometime between the end of the last Women's World Cup and the Olympic final the following year.
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Ads for the upcoming World Cup begin filtering into our lives. The pack of reporters covering the team swells from a hardy few to a few hundred. Players start appearing in all manner of magazines and talk shows. We learn the new names that have broken into the team, taking up spots between the old ones we half-remember. We talk about how long it's been since the women won their second World Cup – how they're overdue for a third, how those routine gold medals at the Summer Games just won't do.
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A send-off series, so called, is put on to intersperse a succession of camps with friendlies around the country. Heaving masses of little girls in jerseys and headbands bound to the stadiums, trailed by their indulging parents. Eardrum-assaulting cabals of shrieks pierce the late-spring air as the American players' names are announced before the games. It's the same in every town, the same every four years.
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The last such World Cup tune-up, before the tournament starts anew in Canada on June 6, was played here on Saturday. After the habitual rites, fans hoisted a banner, covering two tiers of Red Bull Arena's South Ward. "BRING IT HOME," it read, above and below a Women's World Cup trophy. The United States will open its World Cup in Winnipeg against Australia on June 8.
But, absent injured striker Alex Morgan and midfielder Megan Rapinoe, the USA labored through an insipid and mirthless 0-0 stalemate with South Korea. On a muggy afternoon, the Americans dominated possession but didn't get a sufficient return for their efforts. They pinned the Koreans back with their high pressure but resorted to direct play when they transitioned into attack, pelting hopeful balls up to Abby Wambach or Sydney Leroux. That ploy doesn't often yield much anymore, and it didn't this day either.
The U.S.'s dominance seemed to come stripped of urgency and efficiency. The Americans had plenty of the ball, but little of it in front of goal. In the first half, they mustered a few speculative long shots – some attempts from tricky angles – with an occasional promising attack in the final third not quite seen out to its conclusion. But none of it was terribly dangerous.
Early on in the second act, Wambach laid off a ball for Leroux in the box, but she put her finish right at goalkeeper Kim Jungmi. Ali Krieger then popped a shot just wide. South Korea's Kim Sooyun, meanwhile, almost caught Hope Solo off guard with a very long shot that threatened to sail over her, but the otherwise little-tested U.S. goalkeeper interfered in time. Thereafter, it took almost 40 minutes for the Americans to produce another real chance. At length, Heather O'Reilly beat Kim with a header in injury time but watched her effort loop just over. Solo's late save preserved the deadlock.
"I'm obviously disappointed in the score line," U.S. head coach Jill Ellis said. "But I think what I've tried to do, and what the players have, is to put this in perspective. Because of the week we've had, and mentally some of them perhaps already [being] in Canada."
Certainly, the week has been long. The Americans' schedule was draining, between the travel, practices ramping up toward the big tournament and an endless slate of media responsibilities during a multi-day blitz of New York City.
"We played a good team today in a great atmosphere," Ellis continued. "We stayed healthy, a lot of positives, got a lot of players in [the game]. So for me in terms of it serving what it needed to serve it did its purpose."
The team's veterans were all quick to play down what had, frankly, been a flat performance in the attacking half. "A tie is a loss in my book," midfielder Carli Lloyd said. "But at the end of the day, you've got to move on from this game. It's just a tune-up game. And our focus is now on Australia."
They argued that the result mattered little and that progress is still being made. "We're putting pieces together," O'Reilly said. "I think this team is feeling confident, healthy, ready to go. I think it's just about fixing some things in the final third. We're right there, we're knocking on the door."
"They understand what we're trying to do," Ellis added. "They understand the opponents. Right now, it's about us being in a good place. I think they are. Mentally, they're ready. They were ready to be out of here a week ago."
The women of the U.S. national team have been called the Girls of Summer. As of Saturday, just nine days separated them from their World Cup opener.
Whether they're ready or not, summer is coming.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer columnist for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.