You may not fully recognize the United States women’s national team when it kicks off the second edition of the SheBelieves Cup in Chester, Pa., on Wednesday. And that’s entirely by design.
There is no Hope Solo, of course, long since ostracized for her multi-page rap sheet – and injured, to boot. Out, too, are the retired Christie Rampone, Heather O’Reilly, Abby Wambach and Lauren Holiday. Meanwhile, Megan Rapinoe isn’t yet fit after a long-term injury. Meghan Klingenberg is also on her way back, while Amy Rodriguez has just been off for a year while she had her second son.
The defending Women’s World Cup champions are very much in transition as a new cycle begins in earnest following last year’s debacle at the Rio Olympics – the quarterfinals elimination to Sweden on penalties was the worst American finish at a major tournament ever.
Now begins the slow rebuilding process towards the 2019 Women’s World Cup – and the qualifying tournament in late 2018 or early 2019 – in the first major test since Brazil. The SheBelieves Cup has come to replace the Portuguese Algarve Cup as the U.S. women’s national team’s annual Spring proving ground. And the quality of opposition has been high.
This year, like last year, Germany, France and England will participate. Which means four of the top-five teams in the world will play a round-robin over three days outside Philadelphia, in New Jersey and in Washington, D.C., on March, 1, 4 and 7.
These will be tough tests. Last year, the Americans went 3-0-0 but won by scores of 1-0, 1-0 and 2-1, respectively. That’s quite a difference with the typical friendly blowouts they tend to register against anybody but the world’s elite. After the Olympics, the U.S. won the remainder of its 2016 games by scores of 9-0, 3-1, 4-0, 5-1, 8-1 and 5-0.
Head coach Jill Ellis wants to expose new players to these types of challenges. That’s why 18-year-old wunderkind Mallory Pugh is back in the team after some time off. And it’s why Ellis called in 16-year-old Brianna Pinto – who was born in 2000, potentially making her the national team’s first post-Millennial.
“In this phase we’re in, it’s about taking players who are ready or needing to gain experience. The reality is if a player is not ready right now, we have a big window in which to continue their evaluation and assessment,” Ellis explained in a Q&A on USSoccer.com. “I think with Brianna, part of it is that you have to make sure that a player can help immediately, but also ask yourself, what do you see potentially in this player? And what I see in her is someone that already from a January camp until now is getting more comfortable, is answering questions in meetings and asking questions on the field. Giving her the exposure and experience of being in SheBelieves, which is a big tournament, is a massive investment.”
This tournament, then, will be much less about the established stars in their own right as Ellis figuring out where they still fit in – if anywhere. The English-born head coach with the recognizable hybrid accent is a perpetual builder with a long-running project of modernizing a national team shackled to the same style and players for so many years.
As such, her leaving certain established players home hardly means they’re out of the picture for the 2019 Women’s World Cup in France. She has said that she only wanted players who were fully fit or very close to it for this SheBelieves Cup, so as not to waste the opportunity of really seeing where players stand against the preciously rare quality opposition. With more than two years remaining to piece together the puzzle, other chances will be plentiful.
So the thing to watch is not how the team copes without the players not there, but how the battles and chemistry among those present shapes up. Who will seize the starting job in goal in this post-Solo era? Alyssa Naeher or the fascinating Ashlyn Harris?
Who sticks out in the ever-crowded fight among the forwards? And between Alex Morgan, Christen Press, Crystal Dunn, Pugh, Lynn Williams and Jessica McDonald, who forms the best pairing? Or trident?
What midfield configuration will yield the ideal balance between freeing up creative talents like Tobin Heath – or a healthy Rapinoe – and shielding the defense?
There are many questions and three quality games to seek answers. A sea of time sprawls out between now and the next major women’s tournament, but the preparatory process has already begun.
Meet the U.S. WOMEN’S NATIONAL TEAM ROSTER FOR 2017 SHEBELIEVES CUP:
GOALKEEPERS (3): No. 18-Jane Campbell (Houston Dash), 1-Alyssa Naeher (Chicago Red Stars), 24-Ashlyn Harris (Orlando Pride).
DEFENDERS (6): 8-Julie Johnston (Chicago Red Stars), 11-Ali Krieger (Orlando Pride), 5-Kelley O’Hara (Sky Blue FC), 4-Becky Sauerbrunn (FC Kansas City), 7-Casey Short (Chicago Red Stars); 15-Emily Sonnett (Portland Thorns FC).
MIDFIELDERS (8): 6-Morgan Brian (Houston Dash, 17-Tobin Heath (Portland Thorns FC), 9-Lindsey Horan (Portland Thorns FC), 16-Rose Lavelle (Boston Breakers), 10-Carli Lloyd (Houston Dash), 20-Allie Long (Portland Thorns FC), 3-Samantha Mewis (NC Courage), 22-Brianna Pinto (CASL).
FORWARDS (6): 19-Crystal Dunn (Chelsea Ladies FC), 14-Jessica McDonald (NC Courage), 13-Alex Morgan (Olympique Lyonnais), 23-Christen Press (Chicago Red Stars), 2-Mallory Pugh (UCLA), 12-Lynn Williams (NC Courage).
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer columnist for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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