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Algarve Cup brings new wave of questions for Jill Ellis, USWNT


ALBUFEIRA, Portugal — So, yes, there are worse places to be right now than in the Algarve region on the southern coast of Portugal. But I swear there’s a good reason to be here: The 22nd Algarve Cup, the world’s best annual soccer tournament involving women’s national teams, which takes on even more importance this year with the Women’s World Cup just three months away—and with every U.S. game being televised back home for the first time.

Nine teams that have qualified for the World Cup will be here, including heavyweights the U.S., Japan, Brazil, Germany, France, Sweden and Norway. The U.S. starts play on Wednesday against Norway (Fox Sports 1, 1:30 p.m. ET), and there are plenty of questions facing the Americans:

• Can U.S. coach Jill Ellis figure out her midfield? 

With a central pairing of Morgan Brian and Lauren Holiday (and Carli Lloyd stuck out on the left), the U.S. midfield struggled in a 2-0 loss to France and didn’t impress much in a 1-0 win over England last month. Against the kind of good teams the U.S. will be facing at the World Cup, you have to wonder whether including a pure defensive midfielder in a 4-1-3-2 formation would bring more steel to the U.S. setup.

Who could that be potentially? Any one of Lloyd (if she can stay at home), Julie Johnston, Shannon Boxx (if she can get 90-minute fit), Lori Chalupny, Keelin Winters or Allie Long (the last two of whom aren’t on this U.S. roster). Whether Lloyd plays as a DM (as she was able to do at the 2012 Olympics) or as a central attacking midfielder, she’s much better in a central role and seems misused on the flank.

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• Will Hope Solo move smoothly back into the goalkeeper position?

The U.S. keeper was reinstated to the team recently after a 30-day suspension, and she figures to start against Norway on Wednesday—there just aren’t enough games left before the World Cup for Ellis to make Solo “win back” the starting spot.

If Solo does start, will she be sharp? And in the bigger picture, can Solo make it to late May without being involved in another off-the-field incident? She knows she won’t be getting any more second chances from U.S. Soccer.

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• Is Abby Wambach a starter in the biggest U.S. games? 

She’s the greatest scorer in the history of international soccer, but Wambach, 34, is no longer a guaranteed starter in the most important U.S. games. How will Ellis deploy her here in Portugal? Wambach didn’t start in the loss to France but was in the lineup against England.

If she’s on the field, it certainly influences the way the U.S. plays, focusing more on balls in the air and less on speed. Still, it’s true that if the U.S. is in need of a goal there are fewer more reliable, direct ways of getting one than putting it on Wambach’s head. Plus, she’s a winner. This is a big decision for Ellis to make—and to see what impact it has on Wambach herself.

• How should the U.S. back line look? 

Captain Christie Rampone is back from injury, and the expected central pairing would be Rampone and Becky Sauerbrunn, though Whitney Engen is also a possibility there. Would the U.S. be well-served by going to three center backs with, say, Ali Krieger and Crystal Dunn (or Meghan Klingenberg or Kelley O’Hara) as wingbacks? Perhaps, but that would be a big tactical change this close to the World Cup.

Most likely, we’ll see four in the back. I’d guess Krieger-Sauerbrunn-Rampone-Klingenberg. But look for Ellis to change things up with four games taking place in eight days. Which brings us to…

• How much depth does the U.S. have?

Theoretically, a lot, which will be important here and at the World Cup, where the U.S. will play as many as seven games. Especially when it comes to attacking players, Ellis has a lot of options. At forward: Alex Morgan, Wambach, Christen Press, Sydney Leroux and Amy Rodriguez. Then there are all those attacking midfielders, including Holiday, Lloyd, Megan Rapinoe, Tobin Heath, Brian and potentially Press. How Ellis mixes and matches in this tournament will reveal a lot about what she’s thinking these days.

• How much pressure is on Ellis? 

The U.S. coach knew she was taking on a difficult assignment when she replaced the fired Tom Sermanni just a year before the World Cup. But away losses to Brazil in December and to France last month and the general vulnerability of the U.S. lately have raised questions about Ellis and her coaching staff. What happens in this tournament will start answering those questions one way or another.

Losses to Sweden and Denmark in last year’s Algarve Cup cost Sermanni his job. What will this year’s tournament do for Ellis? Given that it’s a World Cup year—and that these Algarve games will be viewed more than ever in the U.S.—the exposure of this event is higher than it’s ever been.