The U.S. women's national team faces its first real challenge since the Rio Olympics when it hosts three of the top teams in the world in the SheBelieves Cup. The tournament starts against Germany today (7 p.m. ET on FS1) in what will probably be the USWNT's most difficult match of 2017.
With tougher competition comes coach Jill Ellis' best chances to answer questions she has about how the USWNT should move forward. Here the are top questions the USWNT needs to figure out.
What system fits the USWNT's personnel?
The 3-4-3 may be the latest trend in modern soccer, with the Premier League-leading Chelsea being the strongest proponent, but the USWNT's experiments in using a three-back system thus far have raised concerns. Whether in a 3-4-3 or a 3-5-2, the Americans have been pulled out of their defensive shape and beaten in the back, even against some rather weak attacking teams, like Romania. Can the USWNT find master wingbacks to make it work?
Ellis has only used these new formations in friendlies after the Olympics against low-ranked teams, so it's fair to say the USWNT's new three-back approach hasn't even really been tested yet. It's a worthwhile experiment – the USWNT needs a way to deal with an overloaded midfield like they faced vs. Sweden's 4-5-1 at the Olympics – but a lot of questions remain. The SheBelieves Cup will offer a very serious test that should provide answers.
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How should the central midfield be organized?
File this under the "good problem to have" category: The USWNT has a ton of talent in the midfield, and the hard part is structuring it in a way to get the most out of it. We saw how crucial that is in the last Women's World Cup – what flipped a switch halfway through the tournament was a change in the midfield to Morgan Brian playing more as a holding midfielder while Carli Lloyd was unburdened to attack.
In addition to Brian and Lloyd, the Americans have Lindsay Horan, Samantha Mewis, Rose Lavelle, Christen Press and others who can contribute there. Should the USWNT abandon Ellis' previous preference for dual box-to-box midfielders switching off and instead add a dedicated defensive midfielder? Should the USWNT have a dedicated No. 10 who will pull the strings of the attack? There are a lot of ways they can approach it, and plenty of talent to do it.
Can anyone take Alex Morgan's starting spot?
Morgan has been the go-to starter long enough that it's assumed and expected she will always be the first-choice striker for the USWNT. But does that have to be the case? Maybe not, especially with Ellis experimenting with new formations that may change how the USWNT plays.
If the USWNT is looking to play direct and spring a striker behind back lines, Morgan's speed and power make her an obvious choice. But if the team is going to explore an approach that involves playing out the back and moving the ball around in front of goal, Morgan is perhaps not the ideal candidate – even she has admitted she has room to grow in taking on defenders in front of her. Could Christen Press – who lacks the same physicality but is good technically – push for a spot? Could Lynn Williams – who is comfortable roaming and taking on different roles – push Morgan?
What is Allie Long's future with this team?
Long, who broke into the USWNT just before the Olympics, is a question mark in a lot of ways. She excelled for the Portland Thorns most in an attacking midfield role, but she played for the USWNT in the Olympics in more of a holding midfielder role and Ellis has played her lately as a centerback in her experimental three-back system.
It's not that unusual to see players go from attacking positions to defensive ones as they get older. But despite 29-year-old Long's great passing range and discipline, it's tough to argue that centerback would be her best role for the team. A young centerback could certainly put pressure on her for a spot, and Ellis – who seems to want to find a spot for Long – would have a conundrum on her hands.
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Who's the starting goalkeeper?
If you're the type to wager a bet, it wouldn't be a bad idea to put money on Hope Solo never playing in a USWNT uniform again. So where does that leave the USWNT's goalkeeper pool? After all, one of the most glaring problems during Solo's tenure as the USWNT No. 1 was the lack of minutes and investment in grooming a back-up if Solo were injured.
Alyssa Naeher seems like the first choice, but her positioning and organization are a clear drop-off from Solo at her best. Ashlyn Harris is the other obvious option, but her performances for the USWNT haven't been up to the level of her club play and she has been, at times, error prone. Given Solo's age and the problems she has caused U.S. Soccer, it makes sense that Naeher or Harris will take her spot – but eventually Ellis needs determine a starter and start investing in that goalkeeper to fine tune her international game. For now, healthy competition at the spot should (hopefully) push one of Ellis' options to Solo's top level.
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Was the Olympics a blip or reality catching up to the USWNT?
After the USWNT had their worst-ever finish in a major tournament in Rio, the lingering question has been what it means for the USWNT? Was it just one of those things that happens in sports, or was it the long-predicted but never-realized theory that the rest of the world was catching up to the Americans' direct, physical style?
This answer is going to take some time to get and it may not come until the 2019 Women's World Cup. But the SheBelieves Cup offers a chance to get a better sense of the situation, if Ellis goes with her best line-ups.