USA prepare to silence critics ahead of all-important Algarve Cup

VILAMOURA, Portugal —  

If Abby Wambach, Alex Morgan and the rest of the United States women’s national team have been the target of some of the harping and hand wringing on the part of soccer analysts and fans about their not-quite-ready-for-prime-time status, they don’t seem to be buying it.

"It’s like I told everyone after we played France and England: Everyone just relax,” Wambach said in advance of USA’s opening match against Norway in the 22nd Algarve Cup on Wednesday (live now on FOX Sports 1 and FOX Sports Go).

A year ago, what happened to the United States on the southern shores of Portugal set the stage for a white-knuckle ride to the 2015 Women’s World Cup. A seventh-place finish at the 2014 Algarve Cup, plus a bit of behind-the-scenes management mystery, led to U.S. Soccer’s dismissal of head coach Tom Sermanni.

Instead of smooth and steady, the United States ushered in a very intense and short-term mission with a discernible bit of turbulence — make sure the U.S. women uphold their standing as the world’s mightiest soccer power.

The verdict on that headline issue is three months away, when the world’s No. 2-ranked team kick off the 2015 World Cup on June 8 in Winnipeg. New coach Jill Ellis will be under scrutiny for lineup decisions she faces, especially in midfield. Goalkeeper Hope Solo is fresh off a 30-day suspension that saw her miss critical playing time in tough matches in February against France, which played brilliantly for the 2-0 win, and England, which the U.S. narrowly beat 1-0.

Solo’s return was not guaranteed, given the ultimatums made by U.S. Soccer and her national team coaches. However, Ellis said Solo "is in a good place" though she "hasn’t been in training like this for the past five or six weeks."

"What Hope has and what Hope brings is experience. Our next goalkeeper (Ashlyn Harris, who got both starts in France and England) has only six international caps. In terms of game management, it is certainly an advantage to have Hope here,” Ellis said about the much-maligned goalkeeper.

The tough pairings in Europe last month followed a loss and a draw against Brazil in 2014 — a year that made it all too clear that at least five other national teams across the globe — can and have beaten the Americans on any given day. For right now, though, the U.S. women’s soccer scene is set under sunny skies at the Algarve Cup — one of the most important women’s soccer tournaments, especially in a World Cup year.

"We had a couple of rough games against France and England, but we’ve had some very intense scrimmages since we’ve been here,” forward Alex Morgan said, eager to let critics know that the United States is looking to work out their personnel issues up front and in midfield.

On Tuesday, head coaches from the 12 participating Algarve Cup teams gathered in the resort town of Vilamoura in expectation. They know that for the nine Algarve participants (Germany, USA, France, Sweden, Japan, Norway, China, Brazil and Switzerland) heading to the World Cup, what happens here will help forecast lineups and odds for these powerhouses headed to Canada. Winning here can be a big omen of good fortune to come.

Wambach said the United States are fired up and competitive as players are being tested and shifted for roles. Megan Rapinoe and Christie Rampone are back from injuries, along with Solo, who must have satisfied the conditions set forth by national team staff and U.S. Soccer to return from suspension. Wambach strenuously separated what the team has been up to from what it will now have to do here in the Algarve.

"This year is totally different (from a year ago)," Wambach told reporters earlier this week. "We have a new coach and coaching staff. The team has evolved and Jill has a tough job ahead of her to work a lot of injured starters back in.”

In other words, the ghost of Algarve past is not spooking the United States, nor are the team’s foibles over the past year as it went atypically winless for long stretches.

"This tournament is very important,” Ellis said Tuesday, adding that when she was hired "not too many months ago,” her job was to put the team into the most competitive position, hence the trips to Brazil and Europe. "For me, since I’m in charge now, this was about us finding our form and putting us in the toughest environments as much as possible so that we could maximize what we can do and evaluate certain pieces,” she said.

We’ll receive a first glimpse come Wednesday night.

Laura Vecsey is a writer based in New York. She was formerly a political columnist for The Patriot-News in Pennsylvania and a sportswriter at The Baltimore Sun and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Follow her on Twitter.