That the United States national team finds itself playing on Friday the 13th is a wonderful culmination of what has been a freaky 12 months.
It started last March, in a historically bad Algarve Cup. It followed with the shock firing of Tom Sermanni as coach and continued into recent times of Hope Solo’s off-field drama and slumping form for the Americans.
England hosts the United States on Friday (3 p.m. ET, FS1) in a crucial World Cup tune-up match for both sides, each of which suffered convincing defeats their last time out.
England has had over two months for the 3-0 drudging at the hands of Germany in Wembley to ferment and eat away at players. It was a humbling result for an English side with all-time high aspirations at a World Cup (something the country’s men’s side consistently teases and fails to do).
Defeat is fresh on the minds of the Americans, who on Sunday were largely played off the park against France in a 2-0 loss on the other side of the English Channel. France controlled the midfield and exposed the work-in-progress United States flanks en route to a confidence-boosting win that affirmed Les Bleues are the hottest team in the world right now, having beaten Germany, Brazil, New Zealand and the United States in the past four months.
Friday above all things for the United States is about confidence. And at this point, winning is confidence.
That’s ironic for a team whose win-at-all-costs mentality – from the top down – has both saved it in recent major tournaments and brought it to where it is today, no longer the best team in the world as other nations have slowly groomed talent over the long haul. But winning is what the Americans need at this point in their World Cup preparation.
It is true that development has lagged significantly. The progression of players from the U-20 team or even the upper echelon of the National Women’s Soccer League into significant roles on the senior nation is largely nonexistent, save the regular presence of Morgan Brian.
But initiatives to fix those disconnects, announced publicly in late January, are long-term projects. They will take many years, if not multiple World Cup cycles, to fully come to fruition. The group of 30 or so players in the mix now will comprise the 23 who head to Canada in June.
Of Friday, U.S. head coach Jill Ellis must figure out who within that group will provide answers to the issues that have seen the United States, now ranked No. 2 in the world, win just one game – an Argentina ranked 36th in the world that is generations behind the U.S. – in its last five.
Finding answers in some cases means new faces and in other cases means increased testing. At goalkeeper, it’s about getting Ashlyn Harris, who seems to have firmed up her spot as the No. 2, comfortable to be the No. 1 if Hope Solo remains suspended. Harris handled her first test on Sunday relatively well, making a couple of key stops.
Ali Krieger sliding in at right back seems to be the most likely answer there, but the left fullback spot will be an area to watch. Does Lori Chalupny get another opportunity, in the event that Sunday’s howler was a fluke? Does Meghan Klingenberg take the spot based on recent form at the end of 2014? Or has Ellis decided that she has seen what she needs to see from those two, and gives a shot to Kelley O’Hara or Crystal Dunn, who in part due to injury hasn’t seen the field for the U.S. since September.
Ellis’ direction with the midfield will also define the match and the immediate future. An attempt to play a 4-2-2-2 against France, with Carli Lloyd and Tobin Heath checking in from wide positions to purportedly allow the fullbacks to get forward, was a failed experiment. Ellis could go back to the more customary but loosely defined 4-3-3 against England.
England has its own questions to answer, though as newcomers to the top six of the world rankings there is hardly as much pressure on the Three Lionesses as there is on the Americans. That’s how it was last time, when England beat a visiting United States team , 2-1 in 2011 World Cup preparations.
This time Kelly Smith will be calling the game from the studio in Los Angeles, which feels strange to even type. Eniola Aluko and Lianne Sanderson paired up top for England in that Nov. 23 whooping at the hands of Germany.
Midfielder Toni Duggan will miss the match for England with a knee injury that could put to test her World Cup fitness if there are any setbacks. Owning the midfield is hardly a given for the Americans, but even Sunday proved that Alex Morgan and Christen Press have the pace to cause trouble for opposing defenses even without sustained possession. If England coach Mark Sampson continues to try to get Steph Houghton to quickly evolve from a world-class fullback into a shoehorned center back, the U.S. will have chances.
The days of the Americans winning to prove wrong the world’s whispers of demise have passed. Beating England on Friday should keep internal doubts away for the Americans.
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