SheBelieves Cup is next step as U.S. women continue reboot and focus on development

Tobin Heath, the U.S. Soccer female player of the year, continues to be one of the veteran faces on the 23-player U.S. roster. Photo by David Berding/Icon Sportswire

CHESTER, Pa. -- If the U.S. women's national team's starting 2016 without all-time scoring leader Abby Wambach and with high school senior Mallory Pugh was a sign of changing times, then consider this:

Pugh isn't even the youngest player on the roster as the 2017 schedule begins.

That distinction goes to 16-year-old Brianna Pinto, who will attend the University of North Carolina -- two years from now.

That's just in case there was some doubt as to whether this year is about the present or the future.

With its artificial turf and genuine politeness, Canada stood as the center of gravity in soccer two years ago. A year later, Brazil carried the torch, so to speak. And while the second SheBelieves Cup, a round-robin tournament featuring England, France, Germany and the United States, will wind its way up and down the Interstate 95 corridor over the next week, the flurry of world-class competition on American soil is only delaying the inevitable.

This is Europe's year.

Think about it. The biggest prize at stake this year is the European Championship, the newly expanded 16-team tournament to be played in the Netherlands in July. Alex Morgan has set up shop in France for powerhouse Lyon. Crystal Dunn and Carli Lloyd are ensconced in England as members of Chelsea and Manchester City, respectively. Even the U.S. women's national team, with qualification for the 2019 World Cup still barely on the horizon, will make its way across the Atlantic for the first time in more than two years to play two games in Europe in June.

Meanwhile, the United States enters Wednesday's game against Germany (England and France will play earlier in the day on the same field at Talen Energy Stadium near Philadelphia) mid-reboot.

For the first time since she took over in 2014, first winning a World Cup and then exiting the Olympics as the first U.S. team to not medal in the event, Jill Ellis begins a year purely about development. Last fall, she sent a written message to players that emphasized the competition for roster spots that would unfold. Nearly 30 players took part in the annual January training camp in California, with 23 moving on to the roster for this tournament.

"For this group, I think I'm still in a look-and-see," Ellis said. "I think January was a good camp. [Now it's about] looking at some different things in here. Obviously, the [NWSL] will start up again. But in my mind, I gave myself about eight months of really vetting and testing players because I know, obviously, this tournament is a big one."

This is not a complete overhaul. Ellis could, if she chooses, put out a starting lineup against Germany that looks much like her Olympic lineups. Dunn, Lloyd and Morgan are all on hand, and so are familiar faces such as Morgan Brian, Tobin Heath and Becky Sauerbrunn.

The only players missing from the roster eliminated by Sweden in the Olympics are defenders Whitney Engen and Meghan Klingenberg, midfielder Megan Rapinoe and goalkeeper Hope Solo. Only Engen, released from her national team contract last fall, and Solo, technically eligible to return from a six-month suspension but rehabbing from shoulder surgery, appear to be out of future plans. But the unfamiliar faces are the ones that underscore the state of flux that exists for all, new and old.

Goalkeeper Jane Campbell, defender Casey Short and forward Lynn Williams all spent time with the national team late last year. Short's presence here, along with Klingenberg's omission as she returns from injury, tells its own story. Ellis also said Tuesday that she intends to keep playing Allie Long in the center back role the converted midfielder filled toward the end of last year, which suggests further tinkering with a three-back formation.

That is all despite the absence of Andi Sullivan, who was a revelation as a holding midfielder in a brief stint with the national team but suffered a serious knee injury after returning to Stanford. If Long isn't the one who slides into that role, it leaves unsolved one of the longest-running riddles. Only Brian has looked the part, but playing her there now would make little sense if the focus is on a future that clearly involves her playing higher up the field.

Newcomer Rose Lavelle, who has been on Ellis' radar for a long time, despite her young age, is an option as a No. 6. Ellis also mentioned Pinto, part of the most recent Under-20 World Cup entry, though the coach wouldn't commit to the teenager playing at all in the event.

"For this group, I think I'm still in a look-and-see. I think January was a good camp. ... I gave myself about eight months of really vetting and testing players because I know, obviously, this tournament is a big one." U.S. national team coach Jill Ellis

"What I'm trying to look at is 'OK, where is she now? Where could she be with two years investment with us here?'" Ellis said. "That's really why I'm looking at her."

That sums up the whole exercise. The U.S. women need to see if Williams can stretch some of the best defenders in the world the way she did in the NWSL a year ago or against Switzerland in November. They need to know if she is the forward to invest two years in. They need to see if there is another step for Olympic alternates Emily Sonnett and Sam Mewis to take. They need to determine if Ashlyn Harris or Alyssa Naeher -- or neither -- is their goalkeeper.

These games matter not because it's England, Germany and France on the other side but because they will reveal what is on the U.S. side.

That isn't the case for the competition. Their mission here is not to identify talent but to hone what they have in preparation for a major tournament in a few months. The reigning Olympic champion, Germany, has a new coach in Steffi Jones but much the same lineup as in Brazil, headlined by Anja Mittag and Dzsenifer Marozsan. France also has a new coach, Olivier Echouafni. His inclusion of veteran Gaetane Thiney, an elegant veteran forward who fell out of favor with the previous regime, tells its own story of purpose. With one more chance to win a title before hosting the next World Cup, France turns not solely to its bountiful youth ranks but also to veteran experience.

The title on the line in the SheBelieves Cup matters hardly at all. All on hand are here with greater purposes. But the soccer matters because of who is here.

"Just the feeling that it's a tournament, there is something on the line," Sauerbrunn said. "But whenever you're playing the best teams in the world, it always feels just that there is something added to the air, to the atmosphere. You can feel it in camp. There is an energy that sometimes isn't as prevalent. We're raring to go, and we're really excited to play the best."

All while trying to figure out what their best will be about two years from now.