Friendly tournaments featuring world-class opponents are nice, but there's no substitute for meaningful competition. After years of tinkering and testing things out, the reigning World Cup champion U.S. women's national team sets out to qualify for France 2019.
After two years of waiting, the U.S. women's national team finally has competitive matches on the horizon.
With all due respect to the SheBelieves Cup and Tournament of Nations, which featured a number of the world's best teams, there's no substitute for meaningful competition. And with the start of Concacaf World Cup qualifying, that's precisely what the U.S. women will have, for the first time since bowing out of the 2016 Olympics prematurely, at the quarterfinal stage in Brazil.
Make no mistake, the U.S. women may be the defending World Cup champions and remain ranked No. 1 in the world, but there's a point to prove. They may not be able to be fully prove it in Concacaf, but anything but a convincing showing in the qualifying tournament will raise questions about the region's undoubted power entering a World Cup year. Such is the standard that has been set over nearly three decades.
"These games are the best, games that actually matter," veteran Megan Rapinoe said from training camp in North Carolina. "Obviously friendlies are fun, and it's more like a traveling circus and the whole thing, but this is what it's all about: Getting to France, taking care of business here, games that matter–it adds a little bit of pressure, which is always fun, I think."
The U.S. begins group play against its toughest opponent (albeit a team that it's only fallen to once in 36 matches all time–in the 2010 qualifying tournament semifinals), Mexico, on Thursday. That's followed three days later by a date with Panama and a matchup three days after that vs. Trinidad & Tobago. It comes on Oct. 10, the anniversary of the U.S. men's failure to qualify for the World Cup after a failure vs. T&T. Don't expect deja vu to strike for a side high on confidence.
"With this team we're always going to get results," captain Becky Sauerbrunn said. "There's just too much talent on the field not to. But then to also have the performance reflect the results, I think the last few games and especially Tournament of Nations, we feel like we're playing really well and you leave that field with a real sense of accomplishment. And that's when I start knowing like, "O.K. this team is starting to get it." And for me, it's a good sign about the tournament that's to come."
The U.S. is the overwhelming the favorite, but after failure in the Olympics, nothing can be taken for granted. Here's a closer look at what's at stake in the next couple of weeks:
The preferred smooth road
With three group games in a week, manager Jill Ellis will have to rotate her squad some. But it's a deep squad at every position, so she shouldn't have much of an issue, especially with the group at hand. That said, any slip-up that opens the door for a potential semifinal meeting vs. Canada (as opposed to Costa Rica, Jamaica or Cuba) would be a disaster, so the eye must remain on the prize and she can't go too overboard in her lineup swaps. Unlike the multi-month gauntlet on the men's side, the two-week competition that makes up women's qualifying is rather straightforward: Advance out of your group, win a semifinal or a third-place game, and you're in. Lose a fourth-place game, and you're sent to an intercontinental playoff vs. Argentina.
On paper, only Canada can be seen as a true peer for the U.S. in this tournament. As long as the two group favorites operate as they should and avoid each other until the final–which is for regional bragging rights, but really nothing else–then all should be relatively straightforward.
Naeher steps into the goalkeeping spotlight
For the last decade, it's been Hope Solo tasked with shutting down opponents in tournament play, but with her no longer in the picture, the spotlight falls on Alyssa Naeher. The Chicago Red Stars backstop has done her part in unquestionably seizing the No. 1 job since it became open following Solo's post-Olympic-defeat tirade about Sweden and subsequent suspension from U.S. Soccer.
But the pressure of an international tournament is something that can't be replicated, nor can the experience gained over years of qualifying tournaments, Olympics and World Cups. Fortunately for Naeher, the opening matches in this tournament, played on U.S. soil, should present a nice transition into the qualifying setting. All eyes will be on her to maintain the high standard set by Solo and Briana Scurry before her.
Will the tinkering pay off?
The U.S. women's team has long felt like an insider's club, though since 2015, Ellis has gone to great lengths to open the player pool up to new faces.
Two of the ones that made nice impressions, McCall Zerboni and Tierna Davidson, are unavailable for this competition with injuries, which could hamper their chances at making the final 23 next summer (provided, again, that the U.S. qualifies). But the overhaul of the player pool over the last three years has opened up new sets of possibilities on the field, with 10 players of the 20 in camp never having been part of World Cup qualifying before. Beyond that, Crystal Dunn is a left back again, despite having world-class attacking qualities. Julie Ertz is in the midfield, after she was so steady at center back at the last World Cup, and she's joined by a dominant Lindsey Horan, who is fresh off an NWSL MVP campaign. A healthy Tobin Heath, combined with the likes of young talents Rose Lavelle and Mallory Pugh, give the attack more unpredictability and dynamism. Carli Lloyd, now 36 and in her fourth World Cup qualifying tournament, isn't relied upon as much for the bulk of the scoring, though Alex Morgan, now 29, remains as vital to the attack as ever.
“The last two years, there was so much changeover with the team, it was so broad with so many different players and formations and lineups, and it sort of made it purposely chaotic,” Rapinoe told U.S. Soccer's official website. “I think it forced us individually and as a team to figure it out, and everyone who has figured it out is now narrowed into this group here at qualifying and we’re working well with each other. It was challenging and sometimes frustrating, but we’re out on the other side of it and much better for it. The group that we have assembled here is crazy talented at every position and very deep.”
There has been a notion for the last number of years that the world is catching up with the U.S., and based on the quality of teams in Europe already qualified for the 2019 Women's World Cup, there could be some truth to it. But the U.S. has also done work to improve and become a more complete side and enters this competition on a 21-match unbeaten streak. It gets the chance to see how much that work has paid off quite soon. At last.