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2017 SheBelieves Cup preview

Can the USWNT maintain a perfect record in the SheBelieves Cup?. (photo by US Soccer)

Can the USWNT maintain a perfect record in the SheBelieves Cup? (photo by US Soccer)

The second SheBelieves Cup kicks off Wednesday night at Talen Energy Stadium in Chester, Pennsylvania. A year ago the United States won all three matches in the highlight of a year that ended with Olympic disappointment. How will the 2017 tournament shake out? Dan Lauletta and Hannah Kronick discuss.

What is the top storyline for the USWNT heading into this year’s tournament?

Dan: Following the Olympics, Jill Ellis said she wanted to shake things up with the team. The idea was roundly embraced but did anyone really expect it would mean Allie Long playing in the middle of a three-back? But that’s exactly how the team looked for much of the fall, and there is no reason to believe Ellis will abandon the experiment before seeing it in action against three of the top sides in the world. To me that is the number one thing to watch. It’s not only that Long is an unusual, if possibly adequate, choice to play the centermost defensive role, but there is a deeper question about whether the midfield loses too much with Long not in it. All three opponents are not only good, they are in the final stages of preparation ahead of this summer’s Euros, so this should be a very stiff test for the U.S. however they line up.

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Hannah:  For me, I think the top storyline is Ellis’ embrace and inclusion of youth on her roster against some of the world’s best. Of particular interest to me are Mallory Pugh, Rose Lavelle, Brianna Pinto, and Jane Campbell. We know Pugh can hold her own and even excel at the highest level, but coming off an injury and returning to the roster for the first time since the Olympics will be a test for her without a doubt. There’s been a lot of hype around Lavelle in recent months after she was drafted No. 1 overall and just signed by the Breakers on Monday. I am excited to see if Ellis gives her time in the midfield and if she might be able to fill that gap that Allie Long could be leaving. On the goalkeeper front, I am definitely excited to see Jane Campbell in action. With the race for the starting spot in full motion, I am intrigued to see if Ellis gives her a chance. Last but certainly not least, it will be interesting to see how Ellis uses 16-year old Pinto. She has called her inclusion on the roster “a massive investment,” so I am fascinated to see what role (if any) she plays in these matches. To Dan’s earlier point, Ellis wanted a shake up and I think we are seeing it. Primarily with Allie Long’s new position, but also with the inclusion of youth on this team that historically has seen an average roster age that is older than its competition.

What is another storyline to watch for the USWNT?

Hannah:  Another storyline for me relates to Lloyd, Morgan and Dunn’s recent moves to Europe. Although I think it’s a little early to tell what role their new club experiences outside of the NWSL are really going to play in their development, I am intrigued to see if there will be any key parts of their game through which we will be able to see hints of their new training styles and environments. Through signing with Manchester City, Lyon, and Chelsea respectively, the goal is to better themselves as players and better their game, something they didn’t think staying with their NWSL teams would do (even for the first few months of the season). So, for that reason, I am interested to see if there’s anything to unfold there, although it very well might be too early to tell.

Ashlyn Harris, above, is locked in a battle for playing time against fellow USWNT keeper Alyssa Naeher (Photo Copyright Erica McCalley for The Equalizer)

Ashlyn Harris, above, is locked in a battle for playing time against fellow USWNT keeper Alyssa Naeher (Photo Copyright Erica McCalley for The Equalizer)

Dan:  I’ll go back to the goalkeeping. At this time a year ago, Hope Solo was so firmly entrenched as the team’s first choice keeper that Ellis took both Harris and Naeher but neither one left the bench. This year they are locked in a tense battle to see if either can emerge as the leading candidate to get the nod two years from now in France. I’m not yet convinced it will be either one of them, but right now they’re the top two and I really can’t remember a time when the keeper spot was literally up for grabs. I don’t see Campbell getting any time, but for a young keeper just about to embark on a pro career just being in with the team should be beneficial.

How important is it for the U.S. to lift the trophy again?

Hannah:  Very important. This is the first opportunity that the USWNT will have to really show their return to the highest level of competition after the Olympics heartbreak in their biggest tournament of the year. Although the USWNT is usually synonymous with being the best in the world, they failed to show that this summer on one of the largest stages. It will be important for them to win the tournament, with quality play, to show progress since last summer. In addition, it’s important to see a U.S. trophy lift so that we can continue to strengthen the national women’s soccer narrative that is so present right now on the heels of the Lifetime NWSL TV deal and ahead of the start of the NWSL’s fifth season. It would be remiss to deny that the USWNT heavily influences the league and its popularity. This would be the perfect time for a rejuvenation of the USWNT story within the domestic women’s soccer narrative just ahead of the start of the NWSL season at a time where there’s a bit of doubt cast on the NWSL with the continued path some players are making to Europe.

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Dan: Wow. I’ll take a hard stance against Hannah on this one. While I generally agree that a better USWNT will equate to a more popular NWSL, I’m not sure this tournament does the trick. And frankly, I’m not sure of putting that expectation on the team is best for development. If we’re making “a massive investment” in Brianna Pinto then it is unfair to throw her straight into a must-win cauldron against three of the best national teams on the planet. Furthermore it is important to put all of the teams in context. The U.S. is in a transitional period at the start of a competitive cycle. The other three are trying their best to iron out some rough edges ahead of the EUROs. On face value, the U.S. should be the least sharp of the quartet. (To contradict myself, last year we assumed England would be ready to peak with no Olympics ahead, and they were a shell of their best selves.) Would it be nice for US Soccer if they can add another trophy to the collection? Yes. Is it best to bring new players along by coaching them to win every time? Yes, I believe that. But I can’t get behind the final result of this tournament carrying much weight.

What are some of the top story lines with the other three teams?

Dan:  Following up on my belief that the USWNT will be fine win or lose, I think France and England are the teams that should be placing a priority on lifting the trophy. In England’s case they are on an upward arc as a program and getting the best of teams who figure to be in their way if they are to keep rising up the food chain. France has long been considered among the most talented teams in the world but their lack of killer instinct is startling. Case in point was last year’s SheBelieves match against the United States when they dominated early only to fade out mentally and wound up losing 1-0 on a stoppage time goal by Alex Morgan. And that’s just one of several matches with a similar plotline. They have since hired Olivier Echouafni as head coach, and this will be the team’s first opportunity to show things will be different. France host the World Cup in two years. Mentally frail hosts have no chance.

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Germany are also sporting a new coach, Steffi Jones. But unlike France, Jones was a handpicked successor to a successful boss, Sylvia Neid. Sure, Germany will be under pressure at the Euros where they are defending champions six times over, but the same time they’re riding the high of their first Olympic gold, are less than full strength due to a rash of injuries, and they’re not going to win every European Championship, right? So for me Germany has the least pressure among the four teams.

Hannah:  I will piggy back on what Dan has said above as I think that really hits the nail on the head with the three storylines for the other teams. I think England will have a strong mix of veteran players as well as youth and it will be interesting to see how they come together. They have been continuing to improve over the last two years, specifically since the 2015 World Cup, so it will be exciting to see how they fair against the already-established powerhouses that are USWNT, Germany and France. Echouafni and Jones both have opportunities to showcase their coaching styles upon assuming new roles as the French and German boss respectively. It will be interesting to see how and if France can get to a point where it’s really capitalizing on all its lethal scoring power that they have within their arsenal. As Dan mentioned, France, for as good as they are, can be a bit underwhelming sometimes. With the EUROs up ahead, I imagine they will be in firing mode. For Germany, it’s always a period of transition when a head coach steps down, but that’s made even more dramatic when you consider Sylvia Neid was at the helm of this team for 11 years. We will see how Jones corrals her talent and what her playing style is this week, I am sure.

What do you think of the tournament? How could it be better?

Hannah: I would like to see a more robust list of teams included in the tournament possibly including the likes of Canada, Australia, or a Sweden, especially for a SBC that is two years out of the next major international tournament. Although I do understand a longer, more competitive tournament would strain some European teams this year with the impending EUROs and that this would be tough to manage as a yearly competition especially in World Cup or Olympic years, it would be great to see it a bit more built out especially this year and next. Competitions like the Gold Cup or Copa America are great tournaments on the men’s side that allow for intense international competition outside of Olympic and World Cup cycles.

Dan: I agree. I would even go a step further and advocate for a team like Colombia or Costa Rica. As it stands the women’s game does not have enough meaningful, competitive matches outside the major tournament so it is a treat to see the U.S. invite three such outstanding teams to play in this tournament. But it still has a rich-get-richer feel to it. I’d like to see the tournament expand to eight teams and maybe—but not necessarily—include placement matches. That would allow it to maintain a high level of competition while also giving opportunities to some lesser sides to get quality matches and build their programs.

2017 SheBelieves Cup Schedule

Wednesday, March 1 (Talen Energy Stadium)
England vs France, 4 p.m. EST (foxsportsgo.com)
United States vs Germany, 7 p.m. EST (FS1, foxsoccer2go.com)

Saturday, March 4 (Red Bull Arena)
France vs Germany, 2:15 p.m. EST (foxsportsgo.com)
United States vs England, 5 p.m. EST (FOX, foxsoccer2go.com)

Tuesday, Match 7 (RFK Stadium)
Germany vs England, 4 p.m. EST (foxsportsgo.com)
United States vs France, 7 p.m. EST (Fs1, foxsoccer2go.com)

note that foxsoccer2go.com is a paid subscription service

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