As the U.S. Women’s National Team prepares to fight for a spot at the 2019 World Cup in the upcoming CONCACAF Women’s Championship, Jill Ellis’ squad first turns its attention to the 2018 Tournament of Nations.
For the second straight year, the USWNT is joined by Brazil, Japan, and Australia in the four-team tournament. Australia won the 2017 tournament, with the USWNT finishing second.
This year, the Tournament of Nations holds a bit more significance, as it will serve as the final tune-up for the USWNT ahead of World Cup qualifiers at the CONCACAF Women’s Championship.
Head coach Jill Ellis believes the tournament will help get the USWNT in the proper mindset ahead of qualifiers.
“There will be things we take away from these games that will certainly help us moving forward,” said head coach Jill Ellis. “Right now where the players are and coming back together, it’s about that feeling of getting back on top of a podium and building and gaining confidence as we march toward qualifiers.
“I think right now the priority is performance and winning. We want to come in and want to win this tournament. It gives you a psychologically a good feeling,” Ellis said.
Defender Becky Sauerbrunn said the team will look to strike a balance between winning the tournament while finishing preparation for qualifiers.
“It’s a little of both making sure we perform well and definitely shoring up the small details, but also we want to get results,” Sauerbrunn said. “We’re playing some of the best teams in the world. When it comes to qualifiers, it doesn’t really matter how you perform as long as you’re winning those games and qualifying. But we definitely want to keep making strides, so it’s finding a balance between the two.”
The FIFA No. 1 ranked USWNT are the hands-down favorites going into the Tournament of Nations and the following World Cup qualifiers, but Sauerbrunn cautioned against becoming too confident.
“We have to remember that we followed winning the World Cup by getting one of the worst results in the Olympics,” Sauerbrunn continued. “I think that really lit a flame underneath us that we never want to feel what that felt like.
“We’re one of the best teams in the world. We’ve proven to be that over the years. But also knowing that in order to stay that way we need to keep pushing it. And so we always have that ‘we can always be a little better.’”
The Tournament of Nations may be most important for goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher, who has secured her role as the No. 1 goalkeeper for the USWNT. Naeher is a veteran on the squad and was on the 2015 World Cup roster, but she enters the Tournament of Nations with only 29 caps for the US.
Naeher had a good showing in the 2018 SheBelieves Cup, allowing only one goal in three games against Germany, France, and England, helping the USWNT to the top spot in the tournament.
“The more games she plays and the more experience she gets, she continues to grow in confidence as a goalkeeper,” said midfielder Julie Ertz. “When you have someone like her behind you, her mentality and presence gives you confidence as a defender. She reacts to situations quickly and fiercely, and comes up huge in big moments.”
Beyond Naeher, the Tournament of Nations will prove to be a true litmus test for the entire USWNT squad. All three opponents are some of the most talented teams in the world and sit near the top of the FIFA women’s rankings: Japan at No. 6, Brazil at No. 7, and Australia at No. 8.
“Right now we’ve got a really good squad. Our minds are in preparation for qualifiers,” said forward Amy Rodriguez. “That’s the big thing ahead for us. We’re going to hopefully take this tournament as a way to prepare as best we can for World Cup qualifiers cause that’s where we really need to perform.”
Is there any added pressure on the players after a disappointing showing in the 2016 Olympics? Ellis doesn’t think so.
“These players, anytime they come in they know the demands. Second place isn’t good enough,” Ellis said. “That’s the expectation of this program, and that’s what’s helped it so much. It’s a part of the culture.”
The USWNT will kick off the tournament against Japan Thursday at 7 p.m. ET in Kansas City on Fox Sports 1.