The U.S. Women’s National Team started off the 2018 SheBelieves Cup much like they did last year, with a 1-0 victory against Germany. Yet, this U.S. team seems like quite a departure from the one that finished last in the 2017 edition of the tournament ahead of facing France on Sunday at Red Bull Arena.
To begin, the USWNT are lining up rather differently than they did a year ago. Only goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher and midfielder Carli Lloyd made the starting lineup in last year’s match against Germany, and Jill Ellis’s side was flirting with a 3-4-3. It was an experiment that hardly got off the ground and resulted in a disappointing tournament. The tournament was finished off by a 3-0 loss to a France team that ended up winning the tournament.
One year later, the U.S. is playing a 4-3-3 with a press that managed to keep a talented young German team at bay. The team has consistently performed well since the end of last year’s SheBelieves Cup, making a permanent shift to the new formation over the summer. The U.S. has lost only once since, and feels like more of a contender to finish at the top of the table this time around.
“In terms of getting last in the tournament, it’s really important for us to just showcase how much improvement we’ve made,” Alex Morgan said during the team’s pre-tournament training camp in Orlando. The goal is to “feel good going into qualifiers later this year,” she added.
The chance to defend their World Cup title in the summer of 2019 is a crucial part of preparing for the SheBelieves Cup for the USWNT.
“I’ve told the players, every time we go out onto a training pitch, we meet as a group, everything is focused on us working towards getting better to be successful in 2019,” Ellis said.
As things currently stand, the U.S. team still look like they have high odds to qualify. Ellis has settled into a core group of players from the starting lineup and the roster at large. Part of the team’s success is down to the consistency of the group in the year since the 2017 SheBelieves Cup. Rosters and lineups come with little surprise now, which is obviously by design.
Several players on the roster are new to the SheBelieves Cup, and therefore to the tough competition of the tournament. Facing second-ranked Germany, third-ranked England, and sixth-ranked France is hardly an easy task for Ellis’ newcomers, but even though the tournament is only one game in, they have individually done well and worked well collectively.
Tierna Davidson has stood out in 2018, jumping up the center back depth chart in co-captain Becky Sauerbrunn’s absence. Only two caps into her national team career, the Stanford player has impressed many with how she has handled the challenge. Megan Rapinoe said following Thursday’s match that Davidson “always looks comfortable in there.” The player herself admitted, at least for her, “this is just another opponent I’m playing against, whether it be college soccer or national team soccer.”
Davidson is not alone in a strong debut in the young tournament, as her partner in the back line, Abby Dahlkemper, also put in a strong performance against possibly the toughest test of her short international career.
One test against top opposition is not enough to come up with a full evaluation of Ellis’s team months away from World Cup qualifying and more than a year ahead of the World Cup. With two more tough tests to go, the side looks to be in good shape to compete for the top spot, making it a different scenario from a year earlier.