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US, France set for World Cup litmus test

January can be the longest and coldest of winter months.

It seemed awfully grey for the U.S. women’s national team, even if the weather did not suggest it in Southern California, where the team trained for three weeks.

Hope Solo was suspended for an in-camp incident involving her as a passenger in a U.S. Soccer team van driven by her husband, ex-NFL tight end Jerramy Stevens, who was pulled over in front of the team hotel and arrested on suspicion of driving while intoxicated. Solo will miss Sunday’s U.S. game away against France and Friday’s game away against England. Her status for the World Cup, which kicks off in June, remains unclear.

News of her suspension ensured that a tumultuous 2014 calendar year for the U.S. – an unexpected coaching change, embarrassing Algarve Cup, Solo’s very public trial and, to end the year, unconvincing play in a loss to and draw with Brazil – carried into 2015.

[MORE: Midfielder Huster soaking up experience of first USWNT call-up]

Sunday is a chance for the U.S. women to quell the doubters – even for a few days – against a France team (noon ET, ESPN2) now ranked No. 3 in the world and, for the first time, legitimate World Cup title contenders.

These two teams met twice in the U.S. last June, with the U.S. winning the first match in rain-soaked Tampa, Fla., and then fighting back for a 2-2 draw in Connecticut behind a brace from Alex Morgan to mark her triumphant return from injury, which started at the match in Tampa. Once again, Morgan is likely to return from another left ankle injury against France on Sunday.

Sydney Leroux, however, is unavailable for Sunday’s match due to an ankle injury picked up in training camp in January. U.S. Soccer says Leroux is day-to-day for Friday’s game against England.

France’s trip to the United States in June exposed a newfound confidence in Les Bleus, which continues to evident. France has been its own worst enemy in the last two major tournaments, going from relative Cinderella to last-minute disappointment at the 2011 World Cup and 2012 Olympics, both of which saw the French finish fourth.

[KASSOUF: France touting experience, confidence ahead of World Cup]

Sunday’s match is a chance not only for the U.S. to right the ship, but to reverse the healthily growing notion that the Americans are anything but a team to be feared. French players said as much in June – there is no longer a mental stumbling block when playing the Americans.

U.S. midfielder Shannon Boxx is available for the first time since April 2013 and, if selected, could alter the shape of the midfield by sitting in a deeper role, allowing Lauren Holiday to push forward alongside Carli Lloyd. But Boxx is now 37 years old and potentially heading into a World Cup on artificial turf after recent injuries, which contributed to her long layoff from U.S. duty, along with giving birth.

Holiday has recently held down the pivotal holding midfielder role for the U.S., but she is best suited in an attacking role similar to that which she plays in Kansas City, where in two years she has won a league MVP crown and a championship.

[MORE: US Soccer unveils new girls youth initiative; Too little, too late?]

U.S. coach Jill Ellis is without midfielder Megan Rapinoe and defender Christie Rampone due to injury, meaning Whitney Engen and Becky Sauerbrunn are likely to pair in central defense. Both are more than capable but far less familiar with each other than with Rampone, who is the team’s leader with 304 caps and almost 40 years to her name.

France enters Sunday’s match the polar opposite of the Americans as form goes. Les Bleues are ranked No. 3 in the world, following a watershed year that featured victories over Germany, Brazil, Sweden, England and Australia. France’s 2014 campaign also ended against Brazil, a 2-0 victory for Les Bleues.

France’s 2-0 victory over Germany in October was the shout from the rooftops that the French are indeed able and ready (Germany took out frustrations from that loss on England in a dominant win at Wembley).

France will on Sunday hope to keep in tact a six-game winning streak that started following that 2-2 draw with the U.S. in June. The Americans, 1-1-2 in  their last four matches, hope to put the last two months behind them.

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