Coming off the low of an Olympic failure, the U.S. women's national team was confronted with another harsh reality. Meaningful games will be few and far in between for about two years, and the opportunity to pick itself back up and prove itself as a world champion again won't come around that often.
Well, one of those such opportunities kicks off Wednesday night in the SheBelieves Cup, when the top-ranked (according to FIFA) U.S. hosts Olympic gold medalist and second-ranked Germany at Talen Energy Stadium in Pennsylvania. The tournament also pits the U.S. against fifth-ranked England (March 4 at Red Bull Arena) and third-ranked France (March 7 at RFK Stadium), with four of the world's five highest-ranked teams going against one another in a high-profile, quick-hitting round robin.
What the week-long exercise provides is a true litmus test for a U.S. team in a transition phase and trying to figure out its way going forward.
Hope Solo hasn't been the goalkeeper since the Olympics and it doesn't appear she will be anytime soon, if at all. Manager Jill Ellis has left behind the Meg(h)ans Klingenberg and Rapinoe, and is also taking a look at 16-year-old midfielder Brianna Pinto. Plenty of the core U.S. players remain in place, but with time comes change, and competition for places should ramp up with the amount of relative newcomers Ellis has at her disposal. There is no surefire U.S. XI right now, and that's entirely to be expected in the middle of dormant period in the international women's soccer cycle.
So while standing atop the winner's podium for a second straight year in this nascent competition is of utmost importance to the U.S., figuring out who belongs in the mix for the run up to the 2019 Women's World Cup is the other high-priority item on the to-do list.
"We've now had two camps together this year and I've seen some good things across the board," Ellis said. "Now we're looking to translate that into three games against fantastic opponents. We will be greatly tested, and these are the moments where you learn the most about yourself, which is exactly what we need right now."
The transition with the U.S. women (who still don't have a new CBA amid the ongoing equal pay fight) extends a bit to the club level, as well. While the NWSL schedule came out on Wednesday, at least the opening half of it won't pertain to Alex Morgan and Carli Lloyd, and it won't at all to Crystal Dunn, the three U.S. stars (in addition to retired national team midfielder Heather O'Reilly) who have taken their games overseas. Their moves won't alter their standing with the U.S., but they do provide a new logistical hurdle for Ellis, who is used to having a full squad of domestic-based talent.
"In my tenure, I haven’t dealt with international players joining us purely at FIFA windows so it’s a slightly different experience for me personally but obviously we’ve kept in contact with them, both visually in terms of watching their games, and obviously through constant communication," Ellis said. "We’re excited to have them join us in camp and ready for them to help us be successful."
In all, change is in the wind for the U.S. women. After their subpar showing in Rio, there is plenty they can learn from this competition, and there's plenty we'll learn about the U.S. in the process.
Here's the U.S. squad for the competition:
GOALKEEPERS: Jane Campbell (Houston Dash), Ashlyn Harris (Orlando Pride), Alyssa Naeher (Chicago Red Stars)
DEFENDERS: Julie Johnston (Chicago Red Stars), Ali Krieger (Orlando Pride), Kelley O'Hara (Sky Blue FC), Becky Sauerbrunn (FC Kansas City), Casey Short (Chicago Red Stars), Emily Sonnett (Portland Thorns FC)
MIDFIELDERS: Morgan Brian (Houston Dash), Tobin Heath (Portland Thorns FC), Lindsey Horan (Portland Thorns FC), Rose Lavelle (Boston Breakers), Carli Lloyd (Manchester City), Allie Long (Portland Thorns FC), Samantha Mewis (NC Courage), Brianna Pinto (CASL)
FORWARDS: Crystal Dunn (Chelsea Ladies FC), Jessica McDonald (NC Courage), Alex Morgan (Olympique Lyonnais), Christen Press (Chicago Red Stars), Mallory Pugh (UCLA), Lynn Williams (NC Courage)