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Algarve Cup gives USWNT true test

FOX Soccer sits down with newly-appointed USWNT manager Tom Sermanni.
FOX Soccer sits down with newly-appointed USWNT manager Tom Sermanni.
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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A WOMEN'S WORLD

FOX Soccer analyzes how a dominating run has the USWNT head and shoulders above their male counterparts.

Following the ill-fated Greg Ryan era and the much-laurelled Pia Sundhage Era, the United States women’s national soccer team will embark on the Tom Sermanni Era in earnest when the Algarve Cup kicks off in Portugal on Wednesday.

After a seemingly endless series of insipid friendlies on the back of the women’s glorious return from the London Olympics, wherein they won their third consecutive gold medal and fourth in five entries overall, the women’s foray into Portugal finally provides the intensity of a real tournament.

The Algarve Cup, if you’re wondering, is an annual invitational tournament made up of 12 countries, divided into three groups. The eight strongest teams are split across groups A and B. The winner of those two groups plays in the final; the runners-up play for third place; and the third-placed teams play for fifth. The last-placed teams are eliminated following the round-robin group play. The teams in group C play a round-robin amongst themselves and can’t qualify for the finals.

As ever, the field is strong. Little wonder, for the Algarve Cup is the biggest tournament in women’s soccer other than the Women’s World Cup and the Olympics. Of the world’s elite, only France, Brazil and Canada are absent this year. Group A is perhaps the toughest, containing world champions Japan, powerhouses Germany and Norway, and Denmark. Group B is headlined by the U.S., who are joined by China, Iceland and Sweden, who are now coached by Sundhage and will represent the biggest threat to a place in the final.

Group C, for what it’s worth, consists of minnows Portugal, Wales, Hungary and a solid young Mexican side, who perhaps deserved a spot in the main tournament.

ABBY ROAD

Click here for Abby Wambach's best momemts from her illustrious career.

The Americans, who are mostly in their off-season, unlike many of their opponents, face a series of demanding games, and those are most welcome. Since the 2-1 Olympic final victory over Japan on Aug. 9, the only decent opponent the U.S. have played was Germany in a pair of October friendlies they tied 1-1 and 2-2. The other eight games of their so-called Fan Tribute Tour were mirthless affairs against pushovers like Costa Rica, Australia, Ireland and China that yielded lots of goals but little entertainment value. On Feb. 9 and 13, they whooped Scotland 4-1 and 3-1.

Which is all to say that it’ll be nice for the U.S. to play some serious games against quality opponents again. Because of its unforgiving construct, this is as difficult a tournament to win as any. Drop one game in the group phase and you could be out of the championship game. That’s what happened to the U.S. in 2012, when they lost their final game to Japan 1-0 on an 84th minute goal. This year’s final game is slated against Sweden, and provided both teams beat Denmark and Norway, it will decide who advances to the gold medal-match.

As Sermanni builds his squad for the 2015 World Cup and 2016 Olympics, such high-pressure games are precious. Of the regulars he inherited from Sundhage, nine or 30 years of age or older. Certainly, the new Scottish head coach, whose first games in charge were the pair of Scotland friendlies, was mindful of this when assembling his squad. In goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris, defenders Crystal Dunn and Whitney Engel, midfielder Kristen Mewis and forwards Lindsay Horan and Christen Press, he selected six players who hold three caps or less.

The latter two, aged 18 and 24, inspire particular hope for the future. Horan is a highly-touted prodigy who became the first American woman to skip college and move straight to the pros, signing a jaw-dropping six-figure contract with Paris Saint-Germain in France instead. Against Scotland, Press became the first U.S. woman to score three times in her first two appearances – starting on the right wing in the first and coming on as a striker in the second. But the promising pair compounds an already complicated problem. In Abby Wambach, Alex Morgan and Sydney Leroux, Sermanni already has a threesome of the world’s very best strikers at his disposal, which combined for no fewer than 69 goals last year.

Wambach (32) and Morgan (23), the front line pairing of choice in Sundhage’s 4-4-2 system – which Sermanni didn’t deviate from in his first two games in charge – are formidably effective when used in tandem. Wambach – who is just five tallies shy of Mia Hamm’s world-record 158 national team goals – holds the ball up and lays it off and Morgan drifts wide or makes runs. The former is a menace with her height and heading; the latter with her speed and balance. Leroux (22) became the go-to option off the bench for late venom. But with Press and Horan in the mix as well – not to mention Amy Rodriguez (just 26), who didn’t even make the team in spite of her 26 career U.S. goals – there is an embarrassment of riches.

There’s been speculation about a three-striker system and the Algarve Cup offers an opportunity to test such a scheme in a tournament-format and see if it will hold water when the U.S. navigates the choppier seas.

That goes for the entire team, in fact. Now is the time for Sermanni to plot a course and figure out who to bring on board, who to keep there and who to cast adrift.

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