The U.S. Women’s National Team is closing out the year with a pair of matches against rivals Canada, a test that fits with the theme of the year.
Canada, ranked fifth in the latest FIFA World Rankings, is the eighth opponent in the top 10 that the U.S. has faced this year in what has been unusual in the post-Olympics year. The off year, for the USWNT, usually sees the team face nations that are respectable, but ranked much lower than the U.S. The 2013 schedule, for example, saw matches against highly regarded sides like Germany, Sweden, and Brazil, but plenty of matches against up and coming sides like Iceland and Scotland. This year, all of the team’s opposition currently sits in the top 25 of the world.
“This year has been really competitive,” Alex Morgan said at the commencement of the team’s final camp of the year. “We’re not used to this the year after a cycle ends.”
The forward also feels that the demanding year has been particularly beneficial for the younger crop of players head coach Jill Ellis has been integrating into the team over the last year.
“We want to continue to gain experience for those players,” she said.
Goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher, in her first calendar year as the USWNT’s No. 1, agrees.
“I think it’s huge … Players getting a lot of valuable experience,” she said. “Any time we can step on the field is valuable. It’s always a learning experience and to be able to do it against the best teams is even better.”
The changing squad has adjusted well to the high quality opponents, as the team has not lost a match since Australia beat them in July. While the team is in a good rhythm now, it certainly was not the case earlier in the year, when they finished bottom of the table in March’s SheBelieves Cup, falling below winners France, Germany, and England. The tournament included losses to England and France, the latter of which was a 3-0 thrashing, a scoreline the world champions are not used to being on the wrong side of.
“I think we, when thinking back, have embraced it in terms of knowing that there’s a lot of things we need to improve on,” she noted. Trusting the process, she added, was important as Ellis rotated through players and then changed formation from an experiment with three defenders to a 4-3-3.
Many players have stepped up to the challenge. Naeher has proved to be a reliable successor to Hope Solo more than a year after she was suspended by U.S. Soccer. Samantha Mewis has proved to be undroppable as she started every match the U.S. has played in 2017, becoming the new leader of the midfield. Lindsey Horan is one of the first options in an advanced midfield role, though she has competition from Andi Sullivan, who had a strong show in her first game back on the national team after tearing her ACL last year.
Further up the field, Lynn Williams has put herself in the running to be a starting wide forward, particularly in Mallory Pugh’s absence through injury. Rose Lavelle also deserves a mention after she lit up the USWNT attack this year as a debutante, though has not featured since September with a hamstring injury.
Thursday’s match will probably see many of the aforementioned players feature as they’ve begun to carve out starting spots. The match also gives Ellis the chance to give them important opportunities a year before qualification for the World Cup begins. Big game experience has often been hard to come by for the U.S. outside of formal tournaments, and while it has not always gotten in the way of the team’s frequent success, the women’s game is evolving. Teams, at large, are getting better and closing the gap between the best nations and the rest.
It was not always obvious how the U.S. team would respond to such challenges, but it is clear from schedule planning that they have adapted well. Performances on the field have gotten better individually and collectively as a result, as has been the case during the team’s six match winning streak. They battled back from being 3-1 down against Brazil following the loss to Australia, and have simply dominated opponents since, including eighth ranked Japan, 15th ranked South Korea, and 19th ranked New Zealand.
“We want to definitely showcase how we’ve improved this year,” Morgan said. “I think it’s important for everyone’s confidence and for the team morale for us to come off on a high note.”