As the U.S. women’s national team gears up for tests against Portugal and Scotland, the year-ending fixtures are naturally about more than just beating those two opponents. Everything about the matches, from the roster to the venues, is about preparing for next year’s World Cup and the USWNT’s title defense.
For starters, this month’s opponents follow a trend of recent teams the USWNT has faced in friendlies. Both are teams that are trending upward and are starting, if slowly, to make their names on the world’s stage. The USWNT’s Thursday opponent, Portugal, made its major competitive debut at last year’s European Championship and continues to rise up the FIFA rankings. Scotland, meanwhile, will be at the World Cup for the first time in June, and should make for an interesting test as the U.S. team continues to prepare for the many types of World Cup opponents. That said, they provide different tests. Portugal prefers a possession game, while Scotland is more direct, which will force the USWNT to adjust tactics quickly over the course of a short camp.
Additionally, the matches provide the USWNT with its first away matches of the year. Head coach Jill Ellis told U.S. Soccer last month that this camp and the next would serve as a different type of preparation for the World Cup. “This trip and our January Camp will give us two opportunities to ‘dry run’ the logistics of traveling to Europe next summer,” she said. “We love playing at home, but adjusting to time change, recovering from international travel, traveling within Europe and playing in front of away crowds are all good experiences to prepare us for next June.”
For the matches, the USWNT will be without a few of its regulars. Defender Kelley O’Hara underwent ankle surgery and will miss the matches, while defender Tierna Davidson continues to recover from an ankle injury of her own. Forwards Tobin Heath and Christen Press will miss the matches for personal reasons, while midfielder Morgan Brian was left off the roster, but is expected to be part of January camp. The injuries plus what Ellis described as “a very demanding year” for USWNT regulars has led to the coach bringing in some inexperienced players who may still have a shot at some of the final spots on the World Cup roster.
Defender Merritt Mathias has been called back into camp, as have midfielders Danielle Colaprico and Andi Sullivan and forward Jessica McDonald. Meanwhile, University of North Carolina defender Emily Fox has received her first senior team call-up, and is one of three uncapped players along with Colaprico and goalkeeper Adrianna Franch. As a result, Ellis might give some of the bubble players chances to make their cases with extended minutes against opponents that the USWNT will likely beat. Considering how easy it might be to guess most of the USWNT’s World Cup roster at this point, the choice to play the fringe players may be helpful for Ellis and curious onlookers alike.
As Ellis and her coaching staff strive to assemble the best possible roster, that priority works hand in hand with perfecting play. The USWNT likely will not answer questions about how it stacks up against the world’s best teams this month, but there will still be questions about Ellis’s first and second choice backups in several spots on the field. To those questions, there might be answers by the end of the year.