By CAITLIN MURRAY
ROCHESTER, N.Y. — When the U.S. Women’s Nation Team crushed Mexico a few days ago, it was a bit strange. Strange, not for the U.S. women to win 8-0 against a team, but because they hadn’t been playing their best.
But that has to be a bit comforting as the focus, for now, is not on peaking in performance, but on finding a World Cup team in a very deep player pool.
World Cup qualifiers are around the corner and — even if no one with the team admits it — they should be as much of a breeze as Saturday’s 8-0 siege. These days, it’s a question of which players make the 23-player World Cup squad with all eyes on next summer’s tournament.
“I do. I think I do,” coach Jill Ellis said Wednesday when asked if she has a best starting XI in her mind. “But as I’ve said to players, every next roster is determined by performance. You can be set on someone today and then watch a game and it changes because, at this point, it’s about delivering.”
And that is what makes Ellis’ job so hard. Ellis called in 28 players for this camp, her longest since taking over as head coach in April, and all of the players can compete in the international level. Several of them will need to be cut.
She has to whittle a roster down for next summer’s World Cup and her final roster for World Cup qualifiers next month, starting in Kansas City, should offer some glimpses into the core group she sees.
Tonight may be the last chance for players to prove they should be on qualifying roster and get extra time in front of Ellis before the 2015 World Cup. Also tonight, the U.S. will likely beat Mexico again, but that’s not really the point.
“This camp is part preparation, part evaluation and, as we get down to the final spots, I need to see some players,” Ellis told reporters on Wednesday at Sahlen’s Stadium. “So, we’re certainly going to give some players some time out there.”
In other words, expect a different lineup for tonight’s second friendly against Mexico, the final match before World Cup qualifiers next month. Just as with Saturday’s friendly, 18 players will be on the roster tonight.
Amy Rodriguez — who had an impressive season with FC Kansas City, leading her side to the National Women’s Soccer League championship in August – seems like a top candidate to see minutes after not making the bench’s 18 on Saturday.
Defenders Ali Krieger and Kelley O’Hara, who reportedly had slight injuries for Saturday’s friendly against Mexico, seemed full strength for training Wednesday. Media observed the first 20 minutes of training and all players participated in warm-ups and ball drills.
“But as far as performance, I don’t expect anything to change,” Ellis added as she discussed spreading out playing time. “I want us to continue to be a team that looks to combine wide, combine centrally, be relentless in how we attack, and obviously no goals against.”
Ellis continues to fine-tune and tweak her vision for the team. She started the USWNT in a 4-3-3 in every match since taking over, but Saturday’s formation looked to be more of a 4-4-2 in the attack, with Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan up top together.
It would not be a surprise if Ellis changed things up again to see how her players can adapt.
“Regardless of the pieces, what we are really trying to hammer home to the players is it’s the role that they are in,” Ellis said. “If they are a wide player, this is the expectation. If they are an outside back, this is the expectation. So, just consistency in performance is what I’m hoping for.”
The USWNT hosts Mexico tonight at 7 p.m. at Sahlen’s Stadium in Rochester, N.Y. It will be broadcast live on ESPN2.