USWNT's return to Vancouver brings memories for some, opportunity for others
VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- Few passersby lingered long Wednesday around Canada Place, distinctive real estate in this city's downtown that juts out into the water and offers a convention center, a hotel and other businesses. If not yet entrenched, winter felt on the way, and a combination of chilly temperatures and workday routines kept foot traffic moving briskly.
It was only two years ago that few in the same spot seemed in a hurry to go anywhere on a sun-soaked summer morning. A crowd of what appeared to be the same Americans who had streamed across the border for the previous day's World Cup final turned up that day for the first of many victory celebrations for the U.S. women's national team. So eager were some to enjoy the moment, in fact, that Kelley O'Hara and two teammates found themselves, if not chased to a waiting taxi, then at least giddily followed at a barely respectful distance.
Even in a simple quest to find some breakfast after a night of celebrating, they were rock stars.
No horde followed O'Hara when she hailed a cab this week. Vancouver moved on from the World Cup, as the rhythms of Canada Place suggested. The U.S. moved on from Vancouver. But like returning to the spot of a marriage proposal or old college haunts, memories linger.
"Even when I landed here, and I was in the cab ride from the airport to the hotel, it all of a sudden hit me that we were back in Vancouver and would be playing on the field that we won the World Cup on," O'Hara said. "I love this city. This city holds some incredible memories for me, some of my best memories of my life. On top of that, it's a beautiful city.
"It's really cool to be back -- it's a little weird, but it's interesting to reminisce and reflect on 2015 but also just two years later, what it's like to be here."
What will transpire Thursday night when the United States plays Canada at BC Place doesn't happen often. The U.S. hasn't been in the Rose Bowl since 2002, when it played two World Cup qualifiers in the same stadium in which it won the 1999 World Cup. An annual tournament occasionally took it back to Guangzhou, China, where the U.S. won the first World Cup in 1991, but not in nearly a decade and not in games televised for an audience at home. Rarely has the U.S. revisited history in quite this way. And while most of the upper bowl of the stadium in Vancouver will be shuttered, unlike when a capacity crowd rocked the place during the 5-2 win against Japan in the World Cup final, an expected attendance well in excess of 20,000 will feel far more like an event than a typical friendly.
Yet with news Wednesday that an ankle injury Tobin Heath sustained in the NWSL final last month will keep her sidelined through this weekend, there will be just nine American players able to participate who were part of that World Cup winning roster two years ago -- and just five who started the final. For the rest of the roster, Vancouver is just one more work trip at the end of a grueling year of travel and tests.
The two-game series against Canada, which concludes on the other side of the border Sunday in San Jose, California, marks the conclusion of the national team's 2017 schedule. A season that began with a win against Germany, reached its emotional high in a stirring comeback against Brazil and included a first ever loss to Australia and first home loss to England, closes with yet two more games against an opponent ranked among the best teams in the world.
I think overall the players that have come through the last nine months are the players now we want to build and invest in.USWNT coach Jill Ellis
The year following an Olympics, essentially the opening year of the four-year cycle that concludes with the World Cup and Olympics in back-to-back years, had traditionally been lightly scheduled. It was a holding pattern. But after committing to retooling the roster and creating an open competition across the board, coach Jill Ellis has cycled through dozens of players in search of youth, speed, technical ability and the potential to be better in 2019 than 2017.
That hasn't entirely meant out with the old -- few players have used the year more effectively than O'Hara, who continues to show that a team seemingly always in search of outside backs has a good one with more than 100 caps. But it has meant upheaval.
"This has been a very interesting year for this team," O'Hara said. "I don't know if a lot of us who have been on this team for many years have ever gone through a transition period, trial period, evaluation period quite like this year in the past. So I think there were a lot of growing pains with that, but I think that was something that was necessary to get us where we are now."
Where they are is back in Vancouver, but with an eye toward Lyon, France, site of the next World Cup final.
"I feel like we've got a good group of players," Ellis said of a core that includes players who are injured or excused absences like Morgan Brian, Crystal Dunn, Heath, Rose Lavelle and Mallory Pugh. "I think overall the players that have come through the last nine months are the players now we want to build and invest in. ... We've kind of got a skeleton, now we're going to build on the nervous system within it and start to improve the relationships."
So the setting of Thursday's game notwithstanding, this isn't a delayed leg of the World Cup "Victory Tour." It is an opportunity for someone like Casey Short, who watched the last World Cup final from Norway while resurrecting a career slowed by injuries, to gain yet more experience against the kind of opponent that can stretch a back line. For Lynn Williams to go at a world-class defense the same way she goes at NWSL back lines. For Andi Sullivan, the lone collegian here, to play valuable minutes that she missed out on this year while rehabbing a torn ACL.
They and others don't know what a World Cup final feels like, or a World Cup semifinal against Germany, for that matter. They can't for at least two more years. But Vancouver offers them something, too.
"The best thing is to be thrown into games like this that do matter and are in this big atmosphere, this big stage," U.S. co-captain Becky Sauerbrunn said. "Putting players into these games helps kind of simulate what you'll feel in a major tournament. But there is also something about a world tournament that you just have to be there and really feel to understand. I think it takes a little bit of both. I don't think you can be fully prepared, but I think you can get to a point where you get to that world event, that stage, and you're not going to crack under pressure."
Sauerbrunn had her own World Cup memories brought to life by being back here, like the feeling of sitting in a locker room with a 4-1 halftime lead against Japan and wondering what in the world the game would offer next. But those aren't her only Vancouver memories. Three years before the World Cup, the U.S. played five Olympic qualifying games here. They played in front of sparse crowds, at least until the final round, and with only a fraction of the attention from home that accompanied their World Cup exploits. But for a player like Sauerbrunn, then working her way into the starting lineup, it was career changing.
"That was when I was kind of newer onto the team," Sauerbrunn recalled. "So I have fond memories of being a newer player and trying to establish myself and this being one of the first places where I felt like I was given a lot of playing time and significant minutes and where I proved to myself that I deserve to be here."
Everything the United States has done over the past year, whether it proves the right path or the wrong path, is a move away from the past -- obviously the Olympic failures of 2016 but also the World Cup elation of 2015. Coming back to Vancouver to find the city cold and cloudy instead of warm and sunny, full of locals going about their business instead of Americans celebrating, is more of the same. And yet in what is familiar, it is also a reminder of what the objective is in the first place.
"Coming back to Vancouver, I didn't think much of it," Alex Morgan said. "I thought of it as two more national team games to wrap up the season. And then I got here, and I started walking the streets, and I came into this hotel, which is the same hotel that we stayed in for the final, and definitely a flood of memories and emotions came back."
For players like Morgan, O'Hara and Sauerbrunn, Vancouver will always be that place.
For most of those on the field Thursday, it is a necessary stop in finding one of their own.