The women’s soccer scene has hit a lull of late with a dearth of news as the National Women’s Soccer League offseason sits on neutral. But fear not, it’s a huge week for the sport.
The United States women are on a rare trip to Europe and while Portugal and Scotland — the latter minus their best player, Kim Little — are not likely to offer the stiffest of soccer tests, there is plenty to be gleaned from the two matches. For one, just being in Europe is a positive. Prior to the 2015 World Cup, the team opened the year with a trip to France and England and head coach Jill Ellis has said that the 2-0 thrashing handed to them by France that February was a turning point.
A year later, the SheBelieves Cup was born and the yearly visit to the Algarve Cup canceled, and the U.S. did not leave American soil until heading to Brazil for the 2016 Olympics that August. When they got there, goalkeeper Hope Solo was the scorn of every place she went due to comments about the Zika virus. Whether or not the lack of time in hostile territory was to blame, a quarterfinal loss to Sweden on penalty kicks meant the final four was contested without the United States for the first time at an Olympics or World Cup.
Beyond simply being in Europe, Ellis has brought some less familiar faces on the trip and time seems short if any of them are going to make an impression heading toward the World Cup in June. Goalkeeper Adrianna Franch and midfielder Danielle Colaprico have been this far before, but neither of them can boast having ever actually been capped by their national team. Merritt Mathias and Jess McDonald can, but only one time for each. They will need to make an impression soon — if not immediately — if they expect to contend for a World Cup spot.
Mathias and McDonald are in interesting positions. Mathias is likely in camp due to the ankle injury suffered by Kelley O’Hara, and O’Hara’s return likely pushes Mathias another notch down the depth chart. McDonald will be 31 in February and is extremely unlikely to break through in the next cycle.
These are also the U.S.’s first two matches since officially qualifying for the World Cup and then beating Canada in the Concacaf final. Whether it was lip service about the process or not, there is no more preparation for qualifying. Ellis is now free to narrow her focus on which 23 players she will bring to France for the World Cup defense.
Playoffs loom in Europe, Americas
The U.S. is in, but there are still six spots available at the 2019 World Cup. Two of them will be decided over the next two weeks.
On Thursday, Argentina hosts Panama in the only intercontinental playoff. The return leg is Nov. 13 in Panama. Argentina last appeared in the World Cup in 2007 and have an 0-6-0 mark in two appearances. Add the Olympics and it’s 0-9-0. But thanks to the dual qualifying process in South America, Argentina are already out of the 2020 Olympic tournament, so this is their last chance to get back on the global stage for the next four years. Estefania Banini of the Washington Spirit is a familiar face to American fans.
Panama were the darlings of the Concacaf tournament, no one more so than 17-year-old goalkeeper Yenith Bailey. But after a predictable beatdown from Canada in the semifinals of the Concacaf Women’s Championship, Panama narrowly missed out on qualifying when they fell to Jamaica on penalty kicks in the third-place match. Their consolation prize is a home-and-away against Argentina. Panama have never been to a World Cup or Olympics.
On Friday, attention turns to Europe, where Switzerland will host continental champions Netherlands in the first of two legs, with the return affair also on Tuesday. It is equally a symbol of European parity and a frightening proposition that the Netherlands could miss the World Cup barely a year after thrilling the world with their team’s play and country’s passion at the 2017 European Championship. Either way, a team that not only went to the World Cup but advanced to the knockout stage will be reduced to spectator this time around.
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