ROCHESTER, N.Y. – Improving upon a performance that yields an 8-0 victory is hardly easy. Avoiding complacency against the same opponent six days later is equally challenging.
And getting mentally and physically prepared for a World Cup qualifying tournament where the best opponent is the one which you just beat by a touchdown and a two-point conversion begs the question: What can be learned from all of this?
The United States defeated Mexico, 8-0 on Saturday in Sandy, Utah. The two teams play again at Sahlen’s Stadium on Thursday in the Americans’ final preparation prior to World Cup qualifying, where the top three finishers out of eight are guaranteed a spot in next year’s World Cup in Canada (the hosts already qualified automatically) and the fourth-place finisher in CONCACAF will play the third-place finisher from South America.
U.S. coach Jill Ellis says these friendlies against Mexico aren’t all about results; they are a way to fine-tune an already well-oiled machine.
“This camp is part preparation, part evaluation,” Ellis said. “As we get down to the final spots, I certainly need to see some players, so we’re going to give some players some time out there. But as far as performance, I don’t expect anything to change. I want us to continue to be a team that looks to combine wide, combine central, be relentless in how we attack, and obviously no goals against.”
Wide play and getting in behind defenses has been a particular point of emphasis for Ellis and her team during this training camp.
And one of the most dangerous pairings in the United States’ decorated history is finally re-establishing itself: Alex Morgan and Abby Wambach. The two lit up London in 2012, when the U.S. won a third straight Olympic gold medal and Morgan joined Mia Hamm as the only player to tally 20 goals and 20 assists in a calendar year.
Then, in 2013, Wambach broke Hamm’s all-time international scoring record. Wambach now has 170 career international goals after scoring twice Saturday in the rout of Mexico.
But 2014 has been a challenging year for the pair, individually. Morgan missed the first five months of the year as part of about seven months out with a stress reaction in her left ankle.
Wambach sustained a “mild sprain” in the LCL in her left knee on May 31 and was listed as day-to-day. That turned into a two-month (to the day) layoff as she recovered, costing her a significant portion of the NWSL season and both of the United States’ key June friendlies against world No. 4 France.
Morgan returned to score a brace in that second match vs. France, earning the U.S. a draw that kept alive a now 86-game home unbeaten streak, which is a record.
So having Wambach and Morgan simultaneously healthy is a welcomed sight for the United States.
“It felt really good to play with Abby the other night,” Morgan said. “It’s been a long time since we played up front together, especially being out until June. For me, it’s just getting my touch back, getting my speed, my fitness, just getting back on the same page as Abby. Having the last game under our belt, we know that we kind of picked up where we left off. Now we can continue building from that.”
Ellis has the most depth on her hand in the forward position, which in the United States’ new system can be a very hybrid role out wide. Christen Press continues to push for time on the wing, as does Megan Rapinoe. And then there is Sydney Leroux and Amy Rodriguez, the latter of which didn’t even make Saturday’s 18-player roster despite scoring 13 regular-season NWSL goals and both for FC Kansas City last month in a championship game win.
But the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, according to Ellis.
“Regardless of the pieces, what we are really trying to hammer home to the players is it’s the role that they are in,” she said. “If they are a wide player, this is the expectation. If they are an outside back, this is the expectation. So just consistency in performance is what I’m hoping for.”
Consistency on Thursday could mean another 8-0 win, but that’s just the point for the United States. Keep fine-tuning, keep improving.
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