Tournament of Nations is litmus test for U.S. women's soccer
The three games the United States women's soccer team will play in the Tournament of Nations are not the most important on its schedule this year. They might nevertheless be the year's most telling.
Beginning Thursday against Japan and continuing Sunday against Australia and the following Thursday against Brazil, the United States faces three opponents not only already qualified for the 2019 Women's World Cup but teams that will make the trip to France with visions of lengthy stays. It is the last time the U.S. women will see that level of competition prior to their own attempts to qualify for the World Cup -- which means that, with apologies to a pair of friendlies against Chile later this summer, three games in three cities over eight days constitute the final meaningful scene in this act of the American drama.
The buildup toward a World Cup title defense soon comes to an end. The countdown soon begins.
Mind you, the U.S. women still must take care of their own World Cup qualifying this fall. With Germany in something close to trouble -- the 2016 Olympic champs need at least a draw on the road against Iceland to avoid falling into a four-team playoff in European qualifying -- and an American near-nightmare in qualifying for the 2011 World Cup still part of living memory, the U.S. team has ample evidence that it can't take for granted the CONCACAF tournament it hosts in October. But barring a monumental upset, a final between the United States and Canada would see both teams safely qualified before kickoff.
Those games can get the U.S. women to the World Cup. The Tournament of Nations -- in which the United States will play the best teams the South American and Asian confederations have to offer -- might provide a better accounting of American readiness to succeed in France.
The recent World Cup in Russia offered a sobering vision for the U.S. women (if not as sobering as it was for the absent U.S. men's team). There was Germany, the defending champion that entrusted existing management with the next cycle after winning it all -- even after things fell a bit flat in the next major tournament, the 2016 Euros. The Germans said goodbye during those transition years to one generation of mainstays like Miroslav Klose, Philip Lahm and Bastian Schweinsteiger and tried to blend in a new generation alongside championship holdovers.
Does any part of this script sound familiar when it comes to an American team that bid adieu (in various ways) to the likes of Lauren Holiday, Hope Solo and Abby Wambach, stumbled in the 2016 Olympics and is blending in youth like Tierna Davidson, Rose Lavelle and Mallory Pugh?
The German men had talent but, by most reports, traveled to Russia with little cohesion or chemistry and crashed out of a tournament that proved to be largely defined by such qualities.
Jill Ellis shouldn't have to answer for Joachim Low's sins, of course, but as if it needed to be made any clearer, events in Russia shone a spotlight on the difficulties of winning back-to-back World Cups, be it men's or women's.
There is nothing to suggest the U.S. women, while perhaps still searching for that singular commanding voice on and off the field, have any such problems of chemistry. Perhaps players gravitate toward groups based on anything from age to playing history, but that is a far cry from factions.
"When you get closer to an event, the synergy starts to happen," Ellis said earlier this summer. "The chemistry starts to flow. At this point they are still fighting and scrapping to prove themselves, and they're all rivals right now. ...
"You're not going to have a completely synergized, connected team up until the point you name that roster. Then it's all hands on deck and everyone understands. I think part of the process in selecting those players is making sure the players are willing to commit to that role."
The greater challenge at the moment is cohesion. Tobin Heath is back in action after June's long-awaited international return, but Mallory Pugh remains out with a knee injury she suffered in NWSL play. Finding a rotation for the wealth of riches that is a quartet of Heath, Pugh, Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe will only be a challenge if all four are available at the same time.
Casey Short is back from ankle woes that have limited her to 42 minutes for the U.S. team this year, but Kelley O'Hara remains sidelined. That suggests the Crystal Dunn experiment might continue at outside back but also reinforces that Dunn and Emily Sonnett have as many starts at outside back this season as anyone else on the team. That wasn't anyone's predicted pairing. Nowhere is the roster retooling less settled.
The best news, and perhaps the best reason to read into the performance in these games, is in the midfield. Back from Lyon for good and back on the field for Chicago in NWSL, Morgan Brian is building toward full health. So is Rose Lavelle, who made her 2018 international debut in early June. Those two have started together just once for the national team but offer needed creativity and vision in an admittedly crowded midfield.
The presence of McCall Zerboni, impressive in a start in June, and Merritt Mathias indicates there is still time to make the roster, but the time is nearing when players will need to know who they are playing alongside.
"It's a difficult environment to be in, in terms of being a cohesive bunch," Brian said of the no-stone-left-unturned rosters of the past two years. "When all these people are getting experience, it's great. It deepens the player pool and creates a more competitive environment. But with that, it's hard to get in a rhythm in terms of that -- but I think that comes later down the road anyway, especially last time around. You have so many pieces that you're giving experience to, and you trust the coaching staff as we're going down this road."
The Australians beat the Americans in this event a year ago. The Brazilians had them on the ropes until the most memorable comeback and win since the Olympic exit in 2016. Real competition awaits. And as much as and maybe more than any of the necessary work still to come this fall, these eight days will show us something about what kind of team the United States has the potential to be a year from now.