USWNT's tune-up vs. Ireland offers look at future stars

The U.S. women's national team is ready to enter a younger, fresher era.

If you liked the old version of the U.S. women’s national soccer team, get ready for the new version. It’s going to be a fresher, younger group that coach Jill Ellis presents Saturday at Qualcomm Park, where the U.S. women will play Ireland (5 p.m. ET/2 p.m. PT on FS1).

The most urgent piece of business for the U.S. women is to qualify for the 2016 Olympics in Rio during the CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying Tournament next month (Feb. 10-21 in Frisco and Houston, Texas).

"The roster for qualifying will be named after the conclusion of this event and the game against Ireland will give us an opportunity to fine tune before we begin our quest in February to earn a berth to Rio,’’ Ellis said.

However, a bigger picture dawns for the U.S. women’s national team in San Diego on Saturday. This isn’t just the first match of 2016 -- this is where the future of the U.S. women’s national team starts. The wealth of new talent flooding to the women’s national team is not just about 2016 and the Olympics but about 2017, 2018 and the 2019 Women’s World Cup in France, too.

Remember: Abby Wambach retired in December with the message for women’s soccer fans to forget about her. Hopefully, she meant it -- because the U.S. team already has new players whose names you need to know in the likes of top newcomers Crystal Dunn, Emily Sonnett and Lindsey Horan. These three show tremendous promise when it comes to making the U.S. women’s national team’s next chapter as exciting as the previous chapter.

In fact, one could argue that the U.S. national team is now at a point where young players can invigorate the roster and push the U.S. away from the direct style that characterized the Wambach era.

In her Victory Tour appearances, Dunn showed that she is ready to contribute to the U.S. attack from the outside midfielder position. Horan, who turned pro in France after high school but has been signed by the Portland Thorns, is a big-time player that Ellis aims to make into the team’s new center midfielder. Meanwhile, Sonnett is a center back out of the University of Virginia who was just taken No. 1 in the NWSL Draft by the Thorns.

While veterans like Becky Sauerbrunn, Carli Lloyd, Hope Solo, Alex Morgan, Tobin Heath, Ali Krieger, Meghan Klingenberg have been bolstered by the emergence last year of Morgan Brian and Julie Johnston, it’s tough to imagine that Dunn, Horan and Sonnett won’t make a strong bid for becoming key members in 2016.

Likewise, Ellis had a slew of other new faces in the training camp that the U.S. women just completed in Carson, California: midfielders Danielle Colaprico, Rose Lavelle, Samantha Mewis; forwards Stephanie McCaffrey and Mallory Pugh and defender Jaelene Hinckle. The number of new faces is startling, but it also represents a real chance for American women’s soccer to move ahead, too.

For too long, the U.S. team was caught trying to take care of the past more than looking to the future. A big reason was because the U.S. women’s national soccer team went 16 years without winning a Women’s World Cup. Under those circumstances, a lot of veterans found it tough to walk away. Wambach, Shannon Boxx and other veterans likely would not have had the same incentive to stick around for 2015 had the U.S. women not lost in the 2011 Women’s World Cup. But because of that heartbreaking loss in 2011 final against Japan, the turnover and movement forward for the American women could not really take place.

This is also the first year that Ellis can relax and work with talent she has brought in. She is the reigning FIFA Women’s Coach of the Year after she picked up that award on Jan. 11, along with Carli Lloyd’s FIFA Women’s World Player of the Year award.

The transition from Tom Sermanni to Ellis was not without some consternation and concern, since Sermanni seemed eager to remake the U.S. roster and use new players in his system. Now, Ellis is entering her second new year with the team and can more freely move the talent at her disposal. This is in pretty stark contrast to where Ellis was a year ago, when injuries to Alex Morgan and Sydney Leroux made it look as if Ellis would rely on Wambach to be the focal point of the U.S. offense leading up to Women’s World Cup.

All of that is over now. The futility of World Cup losses has turned to relief. The reliance on Wambach and the direct style of play is also a thing of the past. Lloyd will be the focal point of the offense, until and unless other players step up and decide they’re ready, too. That’s what makes the dawn of 2016 seem like a fun and fresh prospect not just for the new players, but for the USWNT’s fans, too.

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