USWNT returns to field as World Cup Victory Tour opens
Past, present and future come together when the United States plays Ireland on Saturday (ESPN2, 10 p.m. ET), the first game for the Americans since they won the Women's World Cup not quite four weeks ago in France.
The past is inescapable in the Rose Bowl, where 90,000 fans witnessed the 1999 World Cup final that provided -- with Brandi Chastain's help -- an unforgettable scene. But that isn't the only history in the grand old stadium, where three years later the U.S. women played in obscurity in front of crowds not even a tenth of the size.
Those games, the team's last there until Saturday, hinted at how hard it would be to make permanent the power of that moment in 1999.
That brings us to the present and the team that took up that challenge. The United States recaptured the public imagination while falling short in 2011. It exorcised its demons in winning the title in 2015. A month ago, it dared the best of Europe's rising powers to silence it on the field. It dared the world not to listen to what it has to say off the field.
That's the present that fans will celebrate Saturday night.
But the game against Ireland is also a first step into the future and whatever comes next. As the U.S. women begin a five-game Victory Tour, the clock is already ticking. New cycle. New players. New coach. All are coming. And it's worth taking stock of where we are and where we go from here.
The first domino to fall four years ago was Lauren Holiday, the midfield maestro who retired within days of winning the 2015 World Cup and well before her 30th birthday. Losing a player of that caliber in her prime led to a sequence of events that completely remade the midfield.
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The timing of Jill Ellis' decision to step down as coach at the end of this tour was less surprising, if still unexpected, but the ripple effect will likely be more immediate and more encompassing.
On one hand, U.S. Soccer is unlikely to hire a new coach who wants to go full Italian catenaccio (grinding out results with defensive pragmatism). No matter who replaces Ellis on the bench, the United States will play attacking soccer, use the talent pool's abundant athleticism and continue trying to evolve technically to match the modern game. Some sweeping overhaul of the roster is unlikely.
But Ellis' departure makes things interesting in the personnel department, especially for those who might be pondering their own farewells.
For really the first time, Carli Lloyd sounded like someone who might not stick around for 2020 when she spoke the night of the World Cup final. She said that she wanted to go home and consider her options, the reserve role she occupied clearly not what she felt her play merited. She had no reason to think that role would change if Ellis remained. With a new coach, is one of the all-time competitors more inclined to stick around and make her case anew?
Still clearly playing the best soccer of her career after winning the World Cup's Golden Ball, Megan Rapinoe never sounded like someone thinking about walking away. At least, not until recently. In a recent interview with the New York Times, she said, presumably jokingly, "The end's looking kind of nice right now." She also added that she'd take stock after next summer, suggesting the Olympics are a given. But will a new coach, especially someone she knows well like former Reign coach Laura Harvey, affect her decision to stick around beyond that?
Saturday marks the start of the Victory Tour, but it's also exactly one year out from the first Olympic semifinal in Tokyo. You might remember the semifinals as the round the U.S. women failed to reach in the last Olympics in Brazil, the first and only time that happened in a major tournament.
The growth of the Women's World Cup -- literally in terms of a field of 24 (and soon 32) teams and figuratively as the sport's crown jewel -- leaves the Olympics in a curious place. There is a clear pecking order -- the stars on the jersey are for World Cup titles, not Olympic gold medals. But the Olympics are still a global stage, the only one available to the U.S. women for the next three years. And as you heard hundreds of times four years ago and will again now, no women's team has ever won the events in successive years.
Half the field for 2020 is already set, including most of the serious contenders: Brazil, England (under the guise of Great Britain), Japan, Netherlands and Sweden. Along with the United States, Australia and Canada have yet to complete qualifying. But we know Germany and France, Nos. 2 and 4 in the world, respectively, won't be there. Those are two giant roadblocks to potential history already out of the way.
The site and dates for the CONCACAF qualifying tournament have yet to be announced, but it will likely be early enough in 2020 to leave a new coach with only a handful of warm-up games. It's a more precarious process than World Cup qualifying, when just reaching the semifinals all but guarantees success (either automatically or via a playoff). For the Olympics, the U.S. women must reach the final of the qualifying event.
That's still mighty likely, but it's something to consider for a team that will have a new coach trying to pare down the roster to just 18 players and a team that will be coming off a very long year of work.
NWSL stretch run
Lineups are slowly returning to normal in the NWSL.
With Abby Dahlkemper, Crystal Dunn and Sam Mewis all starting this past Saturday, the North Carolina Courage earned an important road win against Kelley O'Hara, Christen Press, Becky Sauerbrunn and the Utah Royals. A day later, the Chicago Red Stars did the same on the road against Reign FC, with Morgan Brian, Tierna Davidson, Julie Ertz and Alyssa Naeher starting for the visitors.
In many cases, the weekend was the second round of games for U.S. players since returning.
Aside from Rapinoe, out with what Reign FC described as an inflamed Achilles tendon, and Alex Morgan, whose Orlando Pride play Friday for the first time since July 20, the stars are back at a time when more people than ever appear interested in watching them play in a uniform other than what they wear with the national team. And with a tight race for both the playoffs and the best record in the league, there is a lot worth watching.
That means little rest for national team players who have been going hard more or less since a January training camp. Contrast that with European stars only now filtering back into preseason -- while all those U.S. players logged minutes this past weekend, Dutch standouts Vivianne Miedema and Danielle van de Donk were not even asked to participate for Arsenal in a preseason friendly against Bayern Munich.
It also means an enormous opportunity awaits players who aren't in Pasadena.
It could be a young player like Washington Spirit second-year midfielder Andi Sullivan. It could be slightly more established players who never settled under Ellis, like Houston's Sophia Huerta and North Carolina's Lynn Williams -- or even uncapped players like Williams' teammate Kristen Hamilton, who can't stop winning NWSL Player of the Week at the moment.
The next two months are their opportunity to show a new U.S. coach, who may be their coach or the opposing coach at the moment, that they should be in camp later this fall or next January.