USWNT heads into SheBelieves Cup with a lot on the (back) line
CHESTER, Pa. -- It is a dress rehearsal for the World Cup this summer. It is a tournament with its own trophy presentation and presumably plenty of confetti. It is a self-described "call to action for young women" to strive for their own success in soccer or any other field of study.
And somewhere in the midst of all that, it is a series of soccer games. Three of them for the U.S. women's national team in the SheBelieves Cup. Three chances to score more goals than someone else.
Those identities aren't mutually exclusive. But as the tournament -- now in its fourth year -- shares the calendar with the World Cup for the first time, the order in which the identities coexist is fluid. That is another way of saying that the SheBelieves Cup, which will see the U.S. play Japan on Wednesday and then England and Brazil in the span of seven days and two more cities, is whatever you want it to be.
"You do want to look small picture, and for us we always want to win every single game," U.S. defender Becky Sauerbrunn said. "Whatever we put on the field -- no matter the personnel, formation, we always want to win the game. But we're also using it as experience we can take into the World Cup because ultimately that's our goal this year -- to win the World Cup.
"So everything kind of leads into the World Cup. But we're definitely taking these game by game and using the tournament as a mini-tournament that reflects the cadence of a World Cup."
No group better illustrates that mix of objectives at the moment than the back line Sauerbrunn normally leads.
The U.S. will need the best of its back line to beat not just three teams ranked among the world's best but three teams whose styles are as distinct as the countries are distant from each other. In the smaller picture, still smarting from a 3-1 loss in France last month, the back line needs to shine now. In the bigger picture, it's still building the relationships that it hopes will matter in June.
"Right now it's critical that our back line and our goalkeeper start to really build a cohesion," U.S. coach Jill Ellis said in reference to her lineup decisions. "So it's not just giving players time to give them time -- it's making sure we're accomplishing something."
The U.S. again will be without a likely World Cup starter: Midfielder Lindsey Horan was left off the current roster because of a quadriceps injury. This is a familiar theme. For the better part of a year, going back at least as far as Crystal Dunn's shift to outside back and Rose Lavelle's return from injury, Ellis' apparent preferred starting lineup hasn't been difficult to decipher. Yet because of injuries (mostly) and squad rotation (occasionally), that group started together in just four of 22 games since the beginning of last year -- all four during World Cup qualifying last fall.
Without Horan, it will be four of 25 games when this tournament wraps up in Tampa, Florida.
But as Horan temporarily steps away in the midfield, the back line inches toward a full cast for the first time since last summer. Tierna Davidson returned from injury as a substitute in the January games against France and Spain. Now Kelley O'Hara returns from injury after sitting out since World Cup qualifying, missing a total of four games on two different European trips.
We know that the preferred front line is Tobin Heath, Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe. We've seen evidence that, when all are available, the first choice at midfield is Julie Ertz, Horan and Lavelle. That isn't to say Mallory Pugh has run out of time to change the depth chart up top or that the same is true of Sam Mewis in midfield. But either would be a change of the status quo.
It isn't a coincidence that the back line that has spent so little time together is still the source of questions.
Are Sauerbrunn and Abby Dahlkemper the first choice as a center back pairing? Is it a three-player rotation with Davidson? Has Emily Sonnett been filling in for O'Hara or taking the veteran's assumed starting role? Is Davidson a starter at either center back or even outside back? (And if it seems late in the game for the last of those, remember Ertz didn't start at center back in 2015 until the third game of that calendar year.)
With Heath, Morgan and Rapinoe all playing some of their best soccer at various times in the past couple of years, the forwards exemplify a revitalized veteran core. The emergence of Ertz, Horan and Lavelle in their respective midfield roles does the same for the youth movement.
The back line? Well, we just don't know yet where exactly it fits in the retooling. We haven't seen it.
"Of any line on the field, I think the defensive line needs to have the best chemistry," Sauerbrunn said. "I think it's actually been really good for all of us to have worked with other people around us because we kind of get used to other people's tendencies.
"In a world tournament, you really never know. One person could go down with an injury, another could go down with a red card. You have to get used to playing with one another. You have to have some kind of relationship with all the people who play on the back line."
We may not even see a full reunion this tournament, not with little reason to demand heavy minutes of Davidson or O'Hara in their returns and other absences always possible.
But there isn't that much more time to be a work in progress.
There was experimentation with personnel, especially an often revolving door at outside back. There was experimentation with tactics, a not altogether successful flirtation with a back three that has nevertheless in some ways returned, at least when the U.S. is in possession, because of the need to push Dunn high up the field and make use of her attacking skills. Ellis seems to know now what she wants the back line to be.
Whether she identified the right cast remains unanswered.
"I think we tactically have gotten a lot savvier since 2016," Sauerbrunn said. "I think we've had to because the game has changed and teams are getting smarter and savvier and more tactical. I also think we've gotten more technical, and I think the players on the back line are capable of doing a lot as far as attacking and defending."
Both will be required to manage three games in seven days.
So it matters if they are ready for these three games against three of the best teams in the world and the distinct challenges they present, beginning with Japan's possession and passing.
And it also matters if these games, no matter the result, provide experience for June.
Welcome to the tournament of many identities. As usual, perhaps Rapinoe put it best.
"There is a trophy on the line," she said. "Albeit sort of a made-up trophy."