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USA stays sharp away from spotlight

The USA will take on Canada this Friday in the first match of 2014.
The USA will take on Canada this Friday in the first match of 2014.
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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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Call it the Great Divide. Of all the challenges women’s soccer faces, there is surely none greater than the three-year layoff in international competition between the sport’s major, quadrennial events. The Summer Olympics are held in the year immediately after the Women’s World Cup, leaving an enormous void in the calendar until the next Women’s World Cup. To wit: following the 2011 World Cup and the 2012 Olympics, the next Women’s World Cup in Canada won’t come until the summer of 2015.

This is a problem, for a lot of reasons. Relevance is chief among them. In the women’s game’s long slog towards mainstream traction -- wherein the rest of the world lags far behind the United States -- the World Cup is the lone well-watched and well-attended event. The Olympic tournament typically does fine, with widespread though not overwhelming interest in the women’s tournament. And then: nothing.

Then there’s the level of play. The United States women’s national team now finds itself at roughly the half-way point between the London Games, which they won, and the next World Cup in Canada, for which they are favorites. The trouble is that in all that time, they don’t play games that count for anything. The schedule is comprised of a lot of camps, the annual but low-profile Algarve Cup in Portugal, and endless friendlies, mostly against mediocre opponents.

The next real competition comes in the form of the CONCACAF World Cup qualifying tournament and an important friendly against rival Canada (live, FOX Sports 1, Friday, 9 p.m. ET), expected to take place late this year. But in the CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament, the Americans won their five games by a cumulative score of 38-0.

So, how does the team that’s been ranked first in the world without interruption since March of 2008 stay sharp? How does it stay hungry? How, for that matter, does it grow and improve as international competitors grow in quantity and quality?

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“The danger can be that if the friendly games aren’t of a really good standard, players can become, not intentionally, a little bit complacent,” says head coach Tom Sermanni, who took over from Pia Sundhage after the Summer Olympics. “It’s that which we have to guard against.”

Ask some of the national teamers about these potential issues though, and you’ll find them somewhat surprised by the realization that the competitive intermezzo is quite that long.

“You know, it’s crazy when you put it like that because some may say three years is a long time but it’s actually gone pretty fast,” says veteran midfielder Carli Lloyd. “We stay pretty busy. Every day that you step onto the field with the national team you’re competing for a spot. Nobody’s safe on this team. Everything becomes competitive.”

Winger Heather O’Reilly vividly recalls her early days on the team, when USA legends Mia Hamm and Kristine Lilly’s fury and annoyance after losing a humdrum five-a-side game in practice would last all day. “Training with the US team is very, very competitive,” says O’Reilly. “Everybody is fighting for their job and their role. So for us it doesn’t really feel that long, mostly because of the culture and environment that’s been created here.”

The intensity has never abated. It’s hard to keep your job on this team, courtesy of the conveyor belt of talent churning out of the college ranks. That shifts the focus to the very short term. “We’re all a little bit short-sighted, which is good, because we don’t take anything for granted,” says O’Reilly.

Sermanni sees positives in the long lay-offs. “I think there are probably more advantages than disadvantages,” he says. “There are a couple of dangers to it. One is thinking you have got more time than you actually have because it comes around very, very quickly. And the second thing is that you then take too much time making decisions and looking at too big a picture instead of making sure you get the focus right at the right time.”

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But they are outweighed by the upside. “You get more contact time with the team,” the Scottish head coach says. “You can get to know the players better, you can get to know how the team can play in different systems or your best starting 11. That time allows you to do those things.”

Now more than ever, time is a valuable commodity. With a spate of regulars steaming towards their 30th birthdays and a fair few already past it, Sermanni has had to rejuvenate and widen Sundhage’s squad. “Prior to my taking over the starting 11 was kind of set,” he says. “Players either started or they were substitutes. What we’ve done is make sure players have actually started. We’ve already started that process of making sure that those players [for the future] are ready to go and have real international minutes.”

Sermanni has had to groom the next batch of starters. But he’s also had to build depth because of the growth of the international game, which now counts more threats to the Americans’ long-standing dominance, and a wider array of quality players. You simply don’t win World Cups on the back of three or four stars anymore.

“Very much now the women’s game, like the men’s game, getting into this next World Cup is going to be about the squad, rather than 11 players,” says Sermanni. “The way the game’s going, if we get to the final, you’re playing seven games on FieldTurf in a limited amount of time. We’ve already started that process of being more of a squad.”

The women’s team may be less visible absent the major tournaments during these in-between years. But the time away from the spotlight is well spent.

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