Friendlies Before the Olympics
The early ouster from the 2016 Olympics in Rio was a shock for all of the new fans of the USWNT. How could a team, fresh off the ultimate victory in all of sports – winning the World Cup – be defeated in the quarterfinals of a less prestigious tournament by a team like Sweden? Certainly, of all the teams in the world over the last few years the USWNT have had the most trouble with Sweden, but there was still a sense of panic surrounding the loss. There were a lot of excuses and blame thrown around after the loss, and Hope Solo was even ousted from the team after publicly bashing the Swedes and their bunker defense when she was already on thin ice. One of the major complaints from fans and pundits alike was that the USWNT was failing to properly prepare for tournaments by playing weak teams and crushing them rather than seeking out high level competition.
Indeed, following the victory at the Women’s World Cup in Canada in 2015 the USWNT still showed signs of struggle. The American side soundly beat Costa Rica, Haiti and Trinidad and Tobago twice, but those teams are ranked 31st, 126th, and 47th respectively in the world. Not exactly stressing yourselves with games like that. The two times they played competent competition they beat Brazil once and drew once – 7th in the world – and won and lost to China – 17th in the world. As you can see, even mediocre exposed the cracks in our world champion team.
Leading up to the Olympics in 2016 the USWNT played a whirlwind set of games that did include a lot of top talent. The She Believes Cup was started, with the USWNT beating Germany, France and England here in the states. We also toppled Canada while earning a draw and a victory against Japan. All of those teams sit above Brazil in the FIFA world rankings, but then we went to the Olympics and lost to Sweden on PKs in the quarterfinals. That loss has spurred the greatest change in scheduling that has ever occurred for the American ladies.
The first game we played after the Olympics was against the Netherlands – 12th in the world – followed by Switzerland – 17th – and Romania – 37th – all of those closing out the 2016 competitive season. The 2017 schedule is even more difficult, with games scheduled against Germany (2nd), England (5th), France (3rd), and Russia (25th) at home. Even better, the USWNT went on the road for the first time in years to play against Norway (11th) and Sweden (9th) in Scandinavia. The second half of 2017 will be just as impressive, with games against Canada (4th), Japan (6th), Brazil (8th) and Australia (7th). If you’ve been keeping track then you’ll notice that the USWNT, rather than playing a bunch of teams in the 30+ range, will have played every team from 2-12 in the world except for #10 – which happens to be North Korea, so the odds aren’t great of a friendly meeting between those teams.
The Tournament of Nations – Courage Players
All of that brings us to a second minor tournament that will be hosted by our USWNT this year. The inaugural She Believes Cup in 2016 was a great success and brought three of the best teams in the world to the USA for a round robin style tournament. It is extremely exciting to see that the Tournament of Nations will be added this summer with Japan, Australia and Brazil coming to compete in the exact same style of tournament. Assuming that both of these tournaments are continued annually, that ensures the USWNT of 6 games per year against some of the greatest teams in the world – something we had been desperately missing for years.
The Courage will be one of the best represented teams at the tournament of nations, with four of our players on the US team and one player – Debinha – playing for the Brazilians. Here is a list of our players and what roles you might expect them to play on the team.
Abby Dahlkemper (D) – Abby has to be feeling good about getting a repeat call-up after traveling with the team to Scandinavia for games against Sweden and Norway. In those two games she was slotted in next to Becky Sauerbrunn as a central defender, the same postion she plays for the Courage with Abby Erceg next to her. Jill Ellis has been experimenting with a switch to a 3-back defensive system, which is perfect because that is what Paul Riley implemented for the first 8 games of the season before Kawamura went down for the season. I believe that Ellis wants to see Julie Ertz play a more offensive role, so she is going to extensively test Dahlkemper in the middle of the back line to see if she has the talent to control some of the best attacking players in the world. Anything less than 180 minutes out of the possible 270 during the tournament would surprise me, and I could see her potentially playing all but 45 minutes. She is an extremely talented and hard-working player who is likely to be offered a contract after the 2017 season, in my opinion. She will likely end up earning over 100 caps for the USWNT if she can stay healthy throughout her career.
Taylor Smith (D) – Smith is a third year NWSL player who is getting her first opportunity on the USWNT. She is a converted attacking player who was moved to an outside defensive role because she can move up the wing and help on offense and defense. Smith is the exact kind of player that is needed to make a 3-back system work, but this early call-up is probably more to test her fit and let Jill Ellis assess her technical ability than a long-term gig. The USWNT is already stacked at outside back, and Smith doesn’t have the finishing ability or focus that is necessary at the international level yet. She sometimes gets caught out of position too far up the field, leaving the defense in a dangerous spot. I hope she gets about 120 minutes over the three games (60 in one and 30 in each of the other two).
Sam Mewis (M) – Mewis has already become one of Ellis’ favorite midfielders due to her health and her physicality. She plays tough as an anchoring midfielder in the center of the pitch and has a harder shot than most players on the team, although she lacks some of the finesse that international play requires. Her strongest points are her fitness and her size – two things that are hard to teach – and I think that Ellis assumes she will pick up some of the fancy footwork as she grows in her career. She definitely has good ball vision, and she has been helped significantly by the fact that so many of her fellow midfielders are always injured. She is the direct beneficiary of Morgan Brian and Tobin Heath struggling to stay healthy, because Allie Long, Megan Rapinoe and Carli Lloyd don’t fit the same role she plays. Mewis will likely play almost all of the 270 minutes in the tournament and will have another opportunity to cement her spot on the team, even though it isn’t in jeopardy right now.
Lynn Williams (F) – Like before, Williams is mired in a crowded group of extremely talented American forwards, and she will probably be a situational player throughout her international career. Williams, like Crystal Dunn, boasts blazing speed that leaves her opportunities to sneak in behind opposing defenses, but she hasn’t yet accomplished the exceptional finishing skills that Dunn possesses. Dunn has been in the league for one more year than Williams, so Lynn has a chance to surpass her talents as she grows as a player. One way that Williams has a major advantage over the rest of the American forwards is her size. While Dunn has her matched in speed, Williams is about 6 inches taller, matching Press, Morgan and Leroux, but falling two inches short of Lindsey Horan. The benefit for Williams is that she can outrun those similarly sized forwards, even if she lacks their technical ability. All of this means that Williams will likely remain a big part of the national team, even if her talents will make her a situational start. I would guess that Williams starts one game and subs in to one other game for a total of about 100 minutes across the tournament depending on injuries.
Debinha (M) – While she isn’t American, we Carolinians have come to absolutely adore our diminutive Brazilian. Despite being just 25 years old, she is one of the most experienced players on the team, with only three players having more appearances on the team and only Marta having scored more international goals. We would expect to see Debinha on the field for all three games, likely starting two and entering as a substitute in the third. I’ll be cheering her on in each game except for the one against the USA. That said, I still hold a deep grudge against the Brazilian squad for their contemptible behavior in the 2011 World Cup. If you haven’t ever seen that game, it is one of the greatest games in the history of women’s soccer.