The Road to the Women’s World Cup: Starting Strong

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On June 8, the US Women’s National Soccer Team (USWNT) will play their first game of the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup. With the tournament rapidly approaching, a lot of focus has been on the return of Goalkeeper Hope Solo after her recent suspension, and while Solo is a cornerstone of the team, her status far from all that stands between Coach Jill Ellis’s squad and a World Cup victory. Between March 5 and March 11, the USWNT faced off against Norway, Switzerland, Iceland and France in the Algarve Cup. The team ultimately came away victorious, but the tournament provided a nice preview of what will surely be some important factors in this summer’s tournament.

Roster:

During the Algarve Cup, the US showed that in nearly every position they have several players that can perform on the international level. With some newer faces on the scene like Julie Johnston, Morgan Brian and Crystal Dunn and some of our favorite, familiar faces returning such as Abby Wambach, Shannon Boxx and Christie Rampone, it’s clear that this is a talented group of individuals.  Megan Rapinoe returned for her first taste of action since a right knee strain in January in the US’s first game against Norway and saw her first substantial time in game two against Switzerland.  While her immediate impact wasn’t quite yet what we’re used to seeing, her play was reassured that she should be more than ready by June to deliver from the wing.

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Physical Strength:

The US has been known in the past for their strong, physical gameplay.  In past competitions, few, if any teams could out muscle the US on a given day, with only a handful of teams such as Germany and England in the same league. And, while physical strength isn’t the key to victory, it certainly doesn’t hurt.

What we saw in the Algarve Cup however, is a changing landscape. More and more women’s teams seem to be spending time in the weight room, and putting up a fight on the pitch. France and Norway’s play, respectively illustrated the difference it can make, and at the World Cup there will surely be more teams going in hard, opening themselves up to injury making that roster depth, at every position, inevitably important.

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Turf:

If you’ve been following the news about the World Cup at all, you may have heard about the controversy over the playing surfaces. If not, in short, the teams playing at this summer’s World Cup will be forced to play their matches on turf fields as opposed to real grass. This is a problem on many levels, namely playing on turf leads to an increase in injuries and completely changes the pace of the game. Not to mention, there is major gender inequality happening here which actually sparked a lawsuit from players. In the men’s tournament, this would be a conversation would be nonexistent; turf would be considered obscene. And it should be, regardless of the gender of those playing. 

Turf presents the above issues for all teams equally, but on a gameplay level, it will especially hurt the teams that like to play long passes out of the back for their attackers to run onto. The ball travels much, much faster on turf than on real grass. The US showed during the Algarve Cup that they can both play the long ball and develop solid passing play out of the back to create goals. If they stick to mixing it up, they may really be able to use their fitness to wear out their opponents and take advantage in the later minutes. If they rely too much on a long ball however, they open themselves up to potentially deadly turnovers and counter-attacks.

Goal Scorers:

The US really showed their depth when you look at the tournament as a whole, the big picture. Goals were scored by six players, including a defender, Johnston, across just four games. The ability for this many players to not just contribute on a real level but score, is a hallmark of successful teams. Germany won the men’s World Cup for this very reason. The opposite of this is a team with a single standout star, like Brazil’s Marta, a long-time force to be reckoned with. Both styles of play have their strengths, and either can come out on top in a single match, but in tournament play, only one can go the distance.

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Hope Solo:

Hope Solo’s trouble has been well documented, but to not mention it in view of the US team as a whole would be neglectful. After the first game of the Algarve Cup against Norway, former US Men’s team player and now Fox Soccer analyst Alexi Lalas tweeted: “Hope Solo makes a big save when losing 1-0 and keeps the #USWNT in the game. U.S. responds by scoring 2. That’s why Solo matters.”

The thing is, no one is saying that Hope Solo doesn’t matter. She is an excellent player.

Hope Solo brings a confidence (some might say cockiness) to the position that is absolutely what you want in a goalkeeper. With that kind of attitude at the back, a weight is lifted off of the rest of the team. The concern about Solo is that the USWNT has placed a lot of eggs in a somewhat volatile basket. 

When depth is clearly going to be this critical to success, if more drama arises, or Mia Hamm-forbid, injury strikes, the US should be able to have the same confidence in backup goalkeepers Ashlyn Harris and Alyssa Naeher, but unless they see game time, that’s unlikely.

Making all the pieces to come together at the right moment is the elusive key that only one team will be able to grasp, but all the teams will be chasing it with the incredible amount of heart that makes women’s soccer worth watching. The US will surely be building to this timing over the next couple months with four games that make up their send-off. More info on these matches and how to watch can be found at ussoccer.com.

Algarve Cup Highlights:

USA 2 – 1 Norway

USA 3 – 0 Switzerland 

USA 0 – 0 Iceland

 

 

 

USA 2 – 0 France

 

 

 

Emily Anderson will be covering the U.S. Women’s National Team’s journey to the World Cup. Tweet her at @EmCAnderson.

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