With World Cup berth in hand, what's next for U.S. women?
FRISCO, Texas -- The U.S. women's national team looked comfortable playing with the lead in the CONCACAF Women's Championship. And they had plenty of practice not letting it go to their heads. Megan Rapinoe scored inside of three minutes in the opening game against Mexico. Rose Lavelle scored two minutes into the final against Canada. Indeed, in a tournament that encompassed 450 minutes, the Americans led for 435 of them.
Now they have to hold the lead against the rest of the world for about eight more months.
The U.S. women need not shy away from their place as the World Cup favorite. Some of that status comes from the state of the world around them. Germany, champion twice this century, righted a shaky qualifying effort but is in flux because it will soon take on a new coach. Japan, the champion in 2011 and finalist four years ago, has five losses by a combined 16-5 margin this year as it transitions to a new era. Australia, Canada, England and host France are close -- all but Canada has beaten the United States on its own turf within the past two years -- but have yet to win a major title.
The U.S. success in qualifying came against overmatched opposition, at least up until the final. But a 26-0 margin of victory in five games merely tells a slightly embellished version of the same story the Americans wrote throughout 2018. Generally good enough against the likes of England, France and Germany early in the year, they grew into rampaging excellence against Australia, Brazil and Japan during the summer and CONCACAF more recently.
But we're still a long way from the World Cup title game July 7 in Lyon, France. The U.S. team that won the World Cup in 2015 arguably didn't hit its stride until the quarterfinals of that event. Much as U.S. coach Jill Ellis said she used halftime of this past week's game against Canada to stress staying on the attack, rather than protecting the lead the team held at the time, the U.S. women will try to avoid protecting the pole position they hold.
"The beauty when you work with elite people or athletes is they're always looking for what's next and they're always pushing the envelope," Ellis said last week. "I think as coaches, that's the environment we want to create. I do believe we can get better in what we do in every facet of our game. ...
"To get this done next summer, we certainly have to continue make strides. It's not going to be a smooth journey; it never is."
So while recent days answered the question of qualification, questions remain for next summer.
How set is the midfield?
The United States used the same starting lineup in four of five games in the CONCACAF event. It didn't repeat a lineup four times in either the 2016 Olympics or Olympic qualifying. Nor did it repeat a lineup four times in either the 2015 World Cup or qualifying for that event. The depth chart is clear.
That's most striking in the midfield, where none of Julie Ertz, Lindsey Horan or Rose Lavelle were starters in their current roles as recently as last summer.
"They're just a good blend of midfielders," Ellis said. "I don't think you can have the same profile in every position in the midfield. So they're a little bit diverse in that way."
And much as Ertz used 2017 to cement her place as the defensive midfielder, no one has used 2018 to greater effect than Horan, MVP in the NWSL and indispensable to the national team as a box-to-box presence.
"I think she's taken another step in terms of her influence to our team and her importance to our team," Ellis said. "She can get us out of tight spots, she can play-make, she can finish. She's just multi-dimensional in that regard. And I think the confidence is there. ... When you're dealing with a younger player, that's a big part of it. You can tell she feels valued and she's valuable."
But if that's true for one young player, it begs the same question in reverse for Sam Mewis. A workhorse for the United States in 2017, Mewis came back from offseason surgery and finished the NWSL season playing like a familiarly formidable, confident presence for the record-setting North Carolina Courage. Yet with just 274 minutes on the field for the U.S. team this year, is she a starter without a home on the field at the moment or is she penciled in as insurance?
When healthy, McCall Zerboni seems a likely fit for a 23-player World Cup roster because she would fill a specific role and need as a defensive presence capable of closing out leads or even doubling up with Ertz against particularly problematic opposing attacks. For Mewis and Morgan Brian, the question is whether they still have cards to play in a game in which the stakes are World Cup minutes.
Where does Mallory Pugh fit?
The long-awaited opportunity to see what the U.S. forward line would look like with Tobin Heath, Alex Morgan, Mallory Pugh and Rapinoe all finally available at the same time didn't produce much drama.
The veterans started all but one game and poured in goals. Pugh came off the bench three times and started with the second line against Panama.
In a conversation during group play of the CONCACAF tournament, North Carolina coach Anson Dorrance singled out Pugh as the embodiment of the attacking, pressing style the United States is playing under Ellis. Yet after a series of injuries the past two years, most recently the knee injury that kept her out much of the summer, the player who still wouldn't even be a senior in college can't seem to catch a break in realizing that potential.
One of the most important X factors for the U.S. women between now and next summer will be how much more development Pugh can squeeze in and how her body responds. It's still not out of the question that Pugh could have the same effect next summer that another young star, France's Kylian Mbappe, had on the 2018 World Cup.
"My expectation is she's already showed us glimpses of a high level," Ellis said. "Now as a player it's getting back into driving to that point. What is she capable of? I think what she's prepared to put in is part of it. But she's a very dynamic player that can change a game. I think she's proven herself as both a goal scorer and a facilitator. Our hope, and I certainly know that Mal's hope, is, again, push her and see what her full potential is."
What should the schedule look like?
The United States will find out its World Cup group on Dec. 8, but it still has the better part of seven months to control its own planning. That time won't be wasted.
Once the 2018 schedule wraps up next month, strength and conditioning coach Dawn Scott will be asked to make good on Ellis' desire for this to be not just the fittest team in the world -- which it might already be -- but the fittest possible version of itself. That must be done without exerting too great a toll on a roster that is neither particularly young nor injury-free over the past 18 months.
We won't see the national team in December, but combine the draw with the offseason work, and that month will have a great deal to do with success next summer.
After playing all but three games on home soil since the Olympics, expect the U.S. women to pile up some international miles before the World Cup -- as they did under Ellis in 2015 with games in England and France in addition to the Algarve Cup in Portugal (although the United States will again host the SheBelieves Cup early next year, an event which didn't exist in 2015).
Games in the spring will be designed as nothing more than tuneups that excite the fan base, and perhaps mimic group opponents to whatever degree possible, but too much of that on the schedule and the U.S. women would incur risks equivalent to the rest of us eating junk food.
"The routs are feel-good games, I guess; everyone feels good about themselves," Rapinoe said last week. "But I don't think it really does much to prepare you for [a game like the 2015 World Cup semifinal against Germany in front of more than 50,000 people], when you really have to be locked on, you have to take the two chances that come and you have to be at your very best.
"The more we can play these teams, see these players, see how they like to play and kind of figure them out -- obviously that gives them a chance to figure us out, as well, but I think that competition sharpens your edge as much as possible."