SEATTLE – The U.S. women’s national team makes its way to the ‘Emerald City’ on Wednesday for the first time since 2002 for the Women’s World Cup victory tour. The World Cup champions take on No. 7-ranked Brazil at CenturyLink Field.
The fire power for both teams will be on full display as rosters from both sides feature some of the best talent the women’s game. U.S. coach Jill Ellis has also brought in some fresh new faces as the level of competitive balance and skill level takes a step up against a strong Brazil side.
“There’s a lot of different things we’re doing in this next two games series, but for me now, it really is about continuing our evaluation and realizing that this game is probably…the best opponent we’ll face before we go into qualifiers so it’s a valuable thing for us,” Ellis said.
The Americans put their 100-game home unbeaten streak — dating back to 2004 — on the line against Brazil on Wednesday in Seattle and on Sunday in Orlando, Fla.
[MORE: Ellis brings in new faces for pair of Brazil matches]
Lindsey Horan, Samantha Mewis and Christine Nairn have all previously participated in camps with the national team, but have yet to break into the fold regular players. Gina Lewandowski is also a new face in camp. It can be intimidating for some players to come into a squad that already has great chemistry and a strong bond. It will be tough for Ellis and her coaching staff to evaluate players in this one-week window. However, the door remains open for the newest roster additions to make a positive impression.
“The biggest thing I told them was, you’ve been identified, you have a special quality. Come in and let us see that special quality,” Ellis said. “It’s playing a little bit with instinct, it’s not getting overwhelmed by the opportunity. Certainly they understand why they’re here and they certainly understand the door that’s being presented to them in terms of showing well and being here. For all of our players it really is about trying to make that January camp. That’s the camp that the qualifying roster will come from. Between now and then is the opportunity for them to show well.”
Horan is one of those key players that Ellis had identified as a player that she wants to get a better look at during this week. The 21-year-old Horan is just coming back from a micro-fracture knee injury and was over the moon with her recent call up to the national team.
“I was just back with PSG after I came back from an injury,” Horan said. “I’ve been out there for two months and I just got a call up from the national team and it was amazing to me and I’m so happy to be here and so happy I could come back to the U.S. to see everyone and play with these players. It’s amazing.”
Rio 2016 Olympic qualifying will kick off in February and an opportunity for Horan to show what she can do against Brazil could go a long way in determining if she can earn a roster spot next summer in Brazil. With the U.S. dealing with a few retirements and potentially more to come, a spot for Horan could open up if she can continue to step up and compete at a high level. Horan is taking a one-day-at-a-time approach and living in the moment as she strives to do her best.
“I think it’s really good for us,” Horan said. “It’s hard because it’s still the victory tour, but they also are starting to get ready for the Olympics. I think it will be good for us just to get into some training sessions with these women, do our best, train at our best to get some looks and see how we adapt well to these guys.”
Ellis, a nominee for the 2015 FIFA Coach of the Year award, is taking time to get to know some of the players she may not be as familiar with. The process of roster re-tooling and bringing in terrific new talent is something that Ellis needs to adjust to as well. Veteran players know exactly what to expect from Ellis, but it can take time to build a relationship with a new player.
“In terms of seeing them on the field, so many of them are new to me in this environment,” Ellis said. “I know Lindsey Horan has been in before; she’s not been in before when I’ve been in and I haven’t seen her in this environment. That’s a big part of it. It’s not just the minutes in the game, it’s seeing them in the training environment and seeing them in comparison to the current roster.”
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Lewandowski, a fullback Bayern Munich, is someone who had thought the national team had passed her by. On previous occasions, timing didn’t exactly work out for Lewandowski and she was not able to have as many opportunities as perhaps she would have liked. She was called into camp by Pia Sundhage before the 2011 World Cup, but she didn’t make it to camp after not being released by FFC Frankfurt, her club at the time.
Lewandowski, 30, says she was completely surprised to find out that she had called up to the U.S. camp.
“I was quite surprised, but excited,” she said. “It’s always an honor to get into camp just to spend a week with the team and train with the best of the best.”
Lewandowski has been playing in Germany since 2007 and is one of two U.S. players to win a UEFA Champions League title, along with Ali Krieger. In Germany, Lewandowski has played both fullback positions and is most comfortable at left back. During this camp, she plans to play her best and show exactly what she can bring to the pitch, whatever that may be.
“Playing in Germany, I guess you develop a certain style of play like the Germans,” she said. “I’m just going to bring what I have to the team, whatever that might be and just play to my strengths and see what I can bring.”
As for Horan, she is looking to add to her two international caps and could not be happier to be in the national team environment. She’s thankful for the strong support from U.S. Soccer fans and is eager to please and play her best. While many see Horan as a strong striker who can compete up top, she describes her abilities as much more than that.
“It’s always hard to talk about yourself,” Horan admits. “Right now I just feel like I’m a lot more confident playing this year. After an injury, I’m so happy to be out there playing. I feel like some people target me as that big, tall forward up top, but I also like getting the ball at my feet, playing, and dropping in to keep the ball, moving and also just being in the box to score goals.”
Horan is exactly the kind of enthusiastic player to push the veterans for minutes. If Horan can stay healthy and continue to progress, she could become a key contributor for the national team for a long time.
Having a player come in for a camp can really boost her confidence and increase development. Ellis spoke about this very topic while discussing Mewis, the younger of two sisters with U.S. national team experience.
“You’ve got to continue to bring players in and access them and evaluate them and partly invest in those players in terms of giving them a glimpse,” Ellis said. “Sometimes you take a young player like Sam Mewis, who was in with us in January for a camp. Sam had some growth to do and when you suddenly get to see and take a peek behind the curtain and have a look and this is what it’s going to take. Sometimes it’s a greater thrust for that player even if they’re not in, but to leave here and now be motivated to get in. I’m really excited about this group and the players.”
The excitement is building and the U.S. Women’s World Cup victory tour keeps rolling through cities across America. The talent is continuing to develop and the core basis of the team is arguably stronger than ever. As players compete for those 18 rosters spots in Rio next summer it will surely bring out the best competition from everyone called up to camp going forward.
It’s clear: Ellis’ evaluation for Rio begins now.
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