USWNT ventures into uncharted territory in upcoming friendly vs. China

The United States will finish their two-game series against China on Thursday night.  

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Suddenly, time is a factor. For the last two years, time has stretched out before the United States women’s national team like a highway carrying on far past the horizon. There was so much time before the 2015 Women’s World Cup and the 2016 summer Olympics that the only real question was how to fill it productively.

On Sunday night, head coach Tom Sermanni was unexpectedly dismissed not yet 18 months into his 4-year contract. And so now, the women find themselves in a time crunch as they get ready to face China in a friendly in San Diego on Thursday.

The three-year gap between the Olympics and the next World Cup is a notorious chasm in which attention, interest and focus tend to fall off significantly. Sermanni endeavored to use that time by remaking the team he had inherited from Pia Sundhage — who won two Olympic gold medals and lost the 2011 Women’s World Cup final on penalties — at the start of 2013.

In order to better prepare his team for an evolved women’s game and future major tournaments in which competitiveness has increased sharply, he wanted to create more of a squad — rather than a set starting 11 and a pack of far-off reserves. And he sought to modernize the playing style to be more possession-oriented and less direct, while rejuvenating an aging side with young talent. But results were a mixed bag, highlighted by a disastrous, worst-ever Algarve Cup, and a decision was made that the team was better off with somebody else in charge.

Whatever it was that wasn’t working — and we’re still not sure, exactly — and lead to Sermanni’s ouster has also put that project on hold. Jill Ellis is the interim head coach, just as she was between Sundhage’s departure and Sermanni’s start date on the job. But she surely hasn’t the mandate or the credibility to institute significant changes and continue the process of shaping the team.

So, until US Soccer appoints a new head coach — president Sunil Gulati said on Monday that the search was underway and that he hoped to have found his woman or man by the summer — the team is in a purgatory of sorts. Much of that vastness of free time has been chewed up, with nothing to show for it if the new manager goes in a drastically different direction.

But that World Cup isn’t so far off now. The qualifiers for the CONCACAF region of North and Central America and the Caribbean will take place in Mexico in October. That’s usually a formality for the USA, who have never failed to medal at the World Cup. When the Americans had to go through the same process ahead of the 2012 Olympics, they won their five games in CONCACAF qualifying by a combined score of 38-0. It’s also a final opportunity to play competitive games though, to fine-tune all that needs fine-tuning, of which there will surely be much.

But first, a coach will have to be found to lead the world’s decade-long number one team. It might well be Ellis, who is usually the development director, but took herself out of contention for the job the last time around, when Sundhage left. This is further complicated by the start of the National Women’s Soccer League season. The serious candidates are all employed and committed for the season — in a league propped up by US Soccer’s funding of its national teamers€™ salaries, mind you. That isn’t to say that accommodations can’t be made, but this thing could be messy.

WORLD DERBIES

Once a new coach is installed, the process of acquainting him or her with the squad and its needs and wants begins anew. So too do preparations for that double-whammy of major tournaments now not so far over the horizon. A fitting playing style will still have to be found and implemented and perfected, somehow incorporating all three forwards Abby Wambach, Alex Morgan and Sydney Leroux, as none of them are benchable. The younger players will have to be brought further into the fold. And depth will indeed have to be addressed ahead of a seven-game World Cup — assuming the Americans reach the semifinals — played on unforgiving turf.

Ellis’ job, for now, and starting on Thursday, is to somehow get the team ready for an uncertain future. When these sides last played in Commerce City, Colo. on Sunday, hours before Sermanni was fired, the USA had some trouble breaking through against a young and unambitious Chinese side, eventually claiming a 2-0 victory.

Not only will Ellis be expected to win more convincingly, but she’ll have to salve whatever wounds gape in the locker room, where Sermanni seemed to at least be liked. And she’ll need to forge a unity of purpose with an eye towards the next, much tougher friendly against Canada on May 8.

It might just be an impossible task.