PHILADELPHIA – There was a candid moment on Sunday evening at PPL Park on the banks of the Delaware River, just before the United States women’s national team lifted their trophy for winning the CONCACAF for the seventh time.
U.S. forward Abby Wambach was in the center of a huddle of her team, clearly animated as she spoke to the other 19 players. The scene is like countless others involving Wambach over the last decade, but this was one of those rare times – even for the successful U.S. women – that she got to deliver it on a stage with all the pomp and circumstance, under the blaring music and spotlights and next to a shiny trophy they were about to lift.
This is the moment these American women yearn for about eight months from now in Canada. It’s one they’ve been denied for going on 16 years at the World Cup.
“What I said is, eight months from now, let’s promise each other we’re standing in this position, about to raise the trophy,” Wambach said after scoring four goals in the United States’ 6-0 title-clinching win over Costa Rica, describing that moment on stage.
“To go through an experience like we did tonight – teams going across the stage, gathering their medals. I remember what it felt like four years ago to not be getting a championship medal from this tournament. Truthfully, that third-place medal still hangs in my closet, so that I can see it, so that it’s a constant reminder of not letting chances slip by.”
Four years ago the U.S. shockingly finished third at qualifying and had to beat Italy in a playoff to make the World Cup. They lost a heart-breaker to Japan in penalty kicks in the 2011 final.
The U.S. was slow out of the gate at qualifying this month, beating Trinidad and Tobago, 1-0 in the opener before picking up steam heading into the knockout round. Sunday against Costa Rica was the most complete performance of the tournament for the U.S. women, who finished the five-game unbeaten set with 21 goals for and none conceded.
But far tougher tasks — and teams — are ahead for the United States, with no disrespect to the still-developing CONCACAF region. Part of the team’s development will be testing its limits.
“A little bit is knowing what the ceiling is on this team,” U.S. coach Jill Ellis said Sunday. “I’m still in the process of seeing where we can go and seeing what we can truly get out of this team. I believe the ceiling is very, very high. Consistency – I’ve talked about it a lot with the team – that’s the true mark of a champion, is consistency in your performances.”
A four-team tournament in Brazil awaits in December, and the host country is a familiar and formidable foe for the Americans. The U.S. will play away against France – who just beat world No. 2 Germany – and England early in 2015 and in March will return to the Algarve Cup in Portugal, where the competition will be stronger than ever with France returning to the fold and Brazil making its debut there.
“We want the best competition from now on,” Ellis said after Sunday’s win. “It’s going to play in the Algarve (Cup), it’s going to play in France, it’s playing in England, we’re going to Brazil. That’s really now our priority is the quality of matches that we get to play.”
Ellis wants her team to get used to a more challenging times in unfamiliar territory, much like the challenges a World Cup presents. But the key in this entire buildup to the 2015 World Cup will come on home soil, the U.S. coach says.
January’s training camp in Los Angeles is when Ellis says the team should really start to take shape. She said on Saturday, prior to the final, that the January camp will feature an expanded roster of players and that she’s “not opposed to looking at some different players as well.”
And Ellis’ goal is to have her team “where we need to be” by the Algarve Cup, which is something of a miniature World Cup simulation. Last year the U.S. hit a recent low point in its worst Algarve Cup ever, finishing in seventh place after a group stage that saw them tie Japan, lose to Sweden and then lose to Denmark by giving up five goals for the first time ever (to Denmark!). That was undoubtedly a contributing factor to Tom Sermanni’s firing as coach.
Sunday saw beautiful soccer from the U.S., but things weren’t always pretty in this CONCACAF tournament, either. Then again, they don’t always have to be, especially in the tournament setting that the World Cup provides. There, as Ellis noted, it’s consistency that matters.
“We have an opportunity to win a World Cup, we really do,” Wambach said. “If this team can manufacture seven consistent games – they don’t have to be great looking games – manufacture seven consistent games where certain players step up to the plate, where certain players shine when the light is shining so bright, I think that we have a really great chance of winning a World Cup.”
If the U.S. women do manage that, next year they could find themselves on a stage much like the one they were on at PPL Park on Sunday, except in Vancouver and with a much greater prize.