Monday December 21st, 2015

The U.S. women's national team had one objective in 2015 and it was met in entertaining fashion in Canada.

The USA's return to the winner's podium at the World Cup restored the Americans' place back atop the world, following a 5-2 win over Japan at Vancouver's B.C. Place. The result exacted revenge for the 2011 final (although the USA did beat Japan in the Olympic gold medal game in London as well), and it cemented the '15ers' place in history. 

While 2015 spelled the end for the USA's 16-year World Cup title drought, it also spelled the end for four veterans' careers. Abby Wambach, Lauren Holiday, Shannon Boxx and Lori Chalupny all retired, going out on top.

Here is the year in review for the USWNT:

HIGHLIGHTS

It doesn't get much higher (actually, it doesn't at all) than winning the World Cup. The U.S. women returned to greatness in Canada, winning a tough group, getting a favorable path in the early knockout rounds, surviving Germany and then overwhelming Japan to win a third World Cup title.

Jill Ellis's squad endured somewhat of an uneven, rocky road in the group stage, but insertion of Morgan Brian into the central midfield helped other dominoes fall into place. It took a couple of moments of good fortune in the semifinals against the Germans to help the USA reach the peak. Celia Sasic's missed penalty was followed by a foul on Germany that looked to have taken place outside the box but was called as a penalty for the U.S. Carli Lloyd calmly dispatched it, and the U.S. never looked back.

The championship was met with quite the reaction at home, as the U.S. left Vancouver for a victory rally in Los Angeles and then headed across the country for a parade down the Canyon of Heroes in downtown Manhattan. It all culminated with a trip to the White House to visit President Barack Obama in late October amid the team's victory tour of friendlies.

Prior to the World Cup, the U.S. captured the Algarve Cup, beating France in the final and returning to form after some early wobbles.

LOWLIGHTS

It wasn't all trophies and victory laps for the U.S. women. Hope Solo remains involved in a domestic abuse case with her nephew and half-sister, the facts of which are still in dispute. She was suspended early in the year for 30 days for her role (missing a pair of games), and the case could cloud her 2016 after the lower court's decision to throw it out was reversed by the Washington state appeals court.

The turf-equality dispute was thrust back into the spotlight after U.S. Soccer was forced to cancel its friendly in Hawaii because of unplayable field conditions. The trip was even more costly, as Megan Rapinoe tore her ACL in training for that match, and her availability for they Olympics is up in the air.

Planet Futbol
Abby Wambach at peace walking away despite ironic final day, U.S. loss

On the field, Holiday's retirement is hardly a lowlight by definition, but the fact that the USA is losing a 28-year-old star midfielder in what could be a continuation of her prime can't be seen as a plus. And while the fanfare and and tribute to Wambach in New Orleans provided a fitting farewell for the world's all-time leading international goal scorer, the U.S. wound up losing to China 1-0, snapping a 104-game unbeaten streak on home soil.

PODCAST: Wambach on her farewell, next chapter

 

GALLERY: Leroux and Dwyer, power duo

PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Carli Lloyd

Lloyd's dominant World Cup knockout stage was one for the ages and has been well documented. Goals in every knockout match. A hat trick in 16 minutes in the final. A goal from the center circle in the final. It was stunning to behold, and its legend will only grow with time.

Planet Futbol
The story behind the goal and the star: Carli Lloyd's rise to World Cup hero

Lloyd is a finalist for FIFA Women's World Player of the Year, an award she's likely to claim in Zurich next month to pair with her U.S. Soccer Female Player of the Year honors, which she won last week (and her SI Sportsperson of the Year finalist nomination!). Her play didn't relent when she returned to NWSL either, as she was voted the league's Player of the Month for July. Lloyd has prided herself on rising to become the world's best, and in 2015 she did just that. 

A strong second place goes to Becky Sauerbrunn, the stalwart center back who was overlooked by FIFA in just about every way on its World Cup player shortlists and World Player of the Year shortlist. As great as Lloyd was, it was the USA's stout defense that carried the team through the group stage, and Sauerbrunn (along with Julie Johnston, Ali Krieger and Meghan Klingenberg) was at the center of it all. Sauerbrunn also won a second straight NWSL title, helping FC Kansas City to a repeat while sending Holiday out with a second trophy in about three months.

GOAL OF THE YEAR: Lloyd's third vs. Japan

Like it was even a question. From the center circle, in the final, for the hat trick:

WHAT'S TO COME IN 2016

There's little time for the U.S. to rest on its laurels. Olympic qualifying takes place in February, and if all goes according to plan, the U.S. will be defending its Olympic gold in Rio against some motivated competitors. 

Planet Futbol
Christen Press on Abby Wambach's last moments, USWNT turning page

The nucleus of the team and its backbone–the defense–remains intact, but with Wambach, Holiday, Boxx and Chalupny gone (and it's yet to be determined what the future holds for 40-year-old captain Christie Rampone), there's a bit of a changing of the guard.

While Wambach's minutes and production can be replaced, there will be a leadership void that she leaves behind. 

The likes of Crystal Dunn, Lindsey Horan, Emily Sonnet and Stephanie McCaffrey were integrated into the squad during the victory tour, and they'll all be looking to cement their places for the future. Should the U.S. qualify for the Olympics, as expected, Ellis will be taking an 18-player roster with her to Brazil, and she'll have some tough personnel calls to make. If Rapinoe's injury keeps her from Brazil, that's a huge blow in the quest for a fourth straight gold medal.

After Olympic qualifying, the U.S. will reportedly be tested in a four-team friendly tournament that includes world powers Germany, France and England. That will provide an ample barometer for where the defending world champions stand ahead of their next major tournament.

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