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For all of its mainstream attention and fame in two out of every four summers, it isn’t very hard to lose track of the United States women’s national team.
It’s been almost three years since the USA ended its 16-year drought and lifted the 2015 Women’s World Cup. The following summer, it posted its worst performance at a major tournament ever when, in spite of high expectations, the team crashed out of the Olympics to Sweden on penalties in the quarterfinals, provoking Hope Solo’s controversial and national team career-ending “cowards” rant.
But the nature of the international women’s calendar is such that the World Cup and Olympics fall on consecutive summers, followed by two summers — and almost three years — of, well, pretty much nothing. It makes for a vexing rhythm to the many who toil at growing the women’s game. Momentum builds with more than a year of incessant attention, followed by a vast and gaping expanse of time until another major event is on the schedule.
At length, the U.S. women are bobbing their head above water again and preparing for another push for glory. That isn’t entirely fair, of course, since the women never stop having camps, playing friendly games and tournaments, and generally trying to better themselves. Yet that’s the perception.
On Sunday, the Americans played their second of three games in the 2018 SheBelieves Cup, the third edition of the unfortunately named, late-winter East Coast tournament — the Tournament of Nations is its summertime West Coast counterpart — in which they face three other members of the world’s top-6 in the FIFA rankings.
That’s not of particular note, since the event is yearly now. Except that, somewhat quietly and without much buildup, the new international cycle begins in earnest in seven months. From October 4 through 17, the Americans will contest the 2018 CONCACAF Women’s Championship, which will send three teams to next year’s Women’s World Cup in France, in a location that’s yet to be decided.
The temptation is not to be terribly impressed by that qualifying tournament. After all, in 2014, the U.S. went 5-0-0, scoring 21 goals and conceding none. The regional CONCACAF competition is still largely subpar, but then Canada — the only other powerhouse in the area — didn’t participate, given its automatic qualification as 2015 tournament host. And a few teams do seem to make strides from one tournament to the next.
October’s affair will give us a first competitive glimpse at the USA in more than two years. Just as the ongoing SheBelieves Cup reveals an extensive rebuilding process undertaken by head coach Jill Ellis after a raft of national team mainstays retired in the wake of the World Cup and Olympics — Abby Wambach; Christie Rampone; Solo; Lauren Holiday; Heather O’Reilly; and a few others.
In their wake, the team has been almost wholly remade. Co-captains Carli Lloyd and Becky Sauerbrunn remain influential contributors — albeit in a reduced role for the platooning Lloyd — and striker Alex Morgan is still one of the world’s best at her job. Megan Rapinoe and Tobin Heath continue to provide whimsy and offensive spark. Christen Press is the attacking alternative. Kelley O’Hara is the wily do-it-all veteran on the flanks. But Morgan is the youngest of that group at 28.
And much of the energy now comes from a pair of undersized wingers in Mallory Pugh and Rose Lavelle — aged 19 and 22, respectively. The midfield is largely run by Sam Mewis, Morgan Brian and Julie Ertz, all 25 years old. They are often fronted by mega-prospects Andi Sullivan or Lindsey Horan, who are 22 and 23. The 25-year-old attacker Crystal Dunn has not followed up on her 14-goal 2016 campaign but remains an athletic freak and a useful port.
Collectively, this is a team that melds experience and knowhow with youth and spades of raw talent. It’s also a team that will be expected by fans and experts to at least be competitive and aim for the first repeat World Cup title in program history.
In spite of injuries to Mewis, Heath and Sauerbrunn, the Americans made a fairly promising start to their SheBelieves effort, beating Olympic champions Germany 1-0 in an almost unplayably sodden and gusty Columbus, Ohio. Maybe the victory was a tad fortunate, given the anything-can-happen conditions and a few fat German chances to undo Megan Rapinoe’s winner that were neglected.
On Sunday, the Yanks followed up with a 1-1 tie against France in Harrison, N.J. The hosts of the next World Cup, who had been hammered 4-1 by England in their last game, frustrated the Americans and snuck a tie from Eugenie Le Sommer’s answer to Mallory Pugh’s go-ahead goal.
It was an unpolished performance by a team with a deadline for figuring things out. But with a win over England in Orlando on Wednesday, the U.S. could claim this tournament after placing last a year ago. Evident progress is being made.
And the Americans have seven short months to get things right.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.