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Two months from WC, U.S. faces New Zealand test

Jill Ellis says all the pieces are finally coming together for the U.S. women ahead of the World Cup. (Photo Copyright Erica McCaulley for The Equalizer)

Jill Ellis says all the pieces are finally coming together for the U.S. women ahead of the World Cup. (Photo Copyright Erica McCaulley for The Equalizer)

The United States Women’s National team finally opens its 2015 home slate on Saturday in St. Louis, Mo., with what is expected to be an historic match against New Zealand.

Over 32,000 tickets have been sold for the match (4 p.m. Eastern) at Busch Stadium — home to Major League Baseball’s St. Louis Cardinals — which U.S. Soccer says could turn out to be a record for a standalone women’s national team friendly match. On Oct. 7, 1999, a crowd of 36,405 fans showed up to Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Mo., to watch the U.S. beat Finland, 6-0.

U.S. coach Jill Ellis is looking for the final pieces and roster spots for her 23-player World Cup roster, which she tells SI’s Grant Wahl that she plans to name sometime next week. The U.S. is also playing New Zealand on Monday in a closed-door scrimmage. Ellis wants players to know where they stand for the World Cup before heading into their three matches with their respective NWSL teams.

The Equalizer’s Erica McCaulley is on site in St. Louis and reports that the U.S. women will reconvene on May 1 after their respective NWSL matches. That will start the homestretch before the World Cup begins on June 6 in Canada. The U.S. will play three send-off matches in May.

Absent on Saturday will be U.S. captain Christie Rampone. Just as the 39-year-old defender was fully recovered from a back injury that kept her out of matches in February and the Algarve Cup — with the U.S. won — in March, she suffered a new injury in this training camp, spraining her MCL. The setback could mean that Rampone gets in an extra game with Sky Blue FC to up her fitness, based on what she told The Equalizer in late March. Julie Johnston, who turns 23 next week, filled in spectacularly at the Algarve Cup and at Friday’s pregame press conference earned the praises of Ellis.

“She’s gotten that opportunity and she’s been fantastic,” Ellis said of Johnston, noting that injuries to Rampone and Whitney Engen have factored. “Right now she’s done enough to be a starter for me.”

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It has been 18 months since the United States and New Zealand last played to a 1-1 draw in Columbus, Ohio, a match that left a bitter taste in the mouths of the Americans as Kiwi striker Hannah Wilkinson equalized with three minutes remaining. The U.S. is 10-1-1 all-time against New Zealand, which is now ranked No. 17 in the world.

“I think New Zealand is a unique opponent for us,” U.S. forward Alex Morgan told The Equalizer on Friday, “because I actually don’t think that their FIFA ranking does them justice. I don’t think that they play enough teams to get a higher ranking, but we play them like they are a top-10 team, because they always come out really strong against us.

“With the last couple of matches we’ve played against them, they’ve shown up big against us. They have speedy players, they have a pretty direct style of play and as far as the center backs that we go against, they have some tall center backs that can also play with the ball at their feet.”

Following Saturday’s New Zealand match and scrimmage, the U.S. will play Ireland on May 10, Mexico on May 17 and Korea Republic on May 30.

U.S. forward Christen Press says the pieces are all now coming together with clarity in the final stages of preparation for the World Cup.

“As I look back, I see now how she taught us in stages all the aspects that she wanted us to bring and how the total package was broken down into each element,” Press told The Equalizer on Friday. “Now it is clear that they were putting the tools into our arsenal, and now as a team and individual players we have all the tactics. We have all the tools that we need. It is our job to sort of pick and choose when to apply them.

“I think these last two months in the final stage of our preparation will be about us just getting to know each other as players, knowing each other’s tendencies, understanding the signals so that we can really help each other and have a dynamic, fluid formation that can take many different shapes.”

In the interview with Wahl, Ellis says the final piece coming together is the attack. Ellis also said she knows that Lauren Holiday, Carli Lloyd — who will slide back into her more natural position — and Morgan Brian will be her central midfielders, though not necessarily all on the field at the same time.

Ellis also honestly addressed the longstanding question of why she doesn’t utilize a defensive midfielder.

“It’s kind of what your preference is,” she told SI regarding the position. “What I’ll say also is I’ve looked at what’s out there, and I feel the players we have, I’d put more of a defensive responsibility and ask more of them to do that, rather than try to have a player who potentially can’t keep the ball and spray it around like the players I have in there now. The question would be who. I feel like I’ve done my due diligence and looked at the players who’ve done relatively well in the league in that role. And mobility-wise, I’d put this group against any of them.”

Saturday’s match is the best remaining opponent on tap for the U.S. in preparation for the World Cup.


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