After the final whistle went, putting an end to a second friendly win over Mexico in a span of six days by a cumulative score of 12-0, the United States women’s national team clasped hands and ran out to the pocket of throaty fans that had serenaded them all game long from a corner of the field. As they thanked them for their support, satisfaction and abundant relief registered on their faces.
Thus far, it has been a long and strange year for the American women. In March, they inexplicably stumbled to their worst performance ever at the Algarve Cup, coming seventh and losing consecutive games for the first time in 13 years. The first of those also broke their unbeaten streak of two years and two days. A month later, head coach Tom Sermanni was unexpectedly fired.
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The timing was strange, since he had been retained after the debacle in Portugal and allowed to coach most of another camp. He was sent away though, and replaced by Jill Ellis, who worked under the interim tag until mid-May.
Her results were mixed early on. She started with a 3-0 win against China 3-0 on her debut and then eked out a 1-1 tie in Canada. Then, upon becoming full-time, she spearheaded a 1-0 win against France 1-0, followed by a 2-2 draw against the same team, in June. A 4-1 win over Switzerland in August was closer than the score line suggested.
So yes, relief and satisfaction were called for even as the world’s long-running number one-ranked team professionally discarded a vastly inferior Mexican side 8-0 and 4-0. Because a month from now, on Oct. 15 to be exact, the US women embark on qualifying for the 2015 Women’s World Cup, which starts in Canada eight months hence. These were their final chances to get it right.
Doing so was acutely urgent. The top three teams will qualify automatically from the 2014 CONCACAF Women’s Championship while the fourth goes to a playoff with a South American team. With Canada qualified automatically as the hosts, this region contains no teams that even remotely resemble a threat to the USA. Mexico, in fact, is one of the stronger teams behind the Americans, along with Costa Rica.
Yet this was also true four years ago. Back then though, in what was still called the Women’s Gold Cup, this very same Mexican team that was so unequivocally trounced over the last week upset the USA in the semifinals. They wound up having to beat Italy in a pair of spare 1-0 victories just to qualify.
The team has grown of late though. Players connected more fluidly on the field and over the course of a 13-day camp got visibly sharper day by day. "Jill has done a great job of coming in, obviously on short notice, and rallying everybody and getting everybody on the same page," said midfielder Megan Rapinoe. "Getting everybody fired up and ready to go and consolidating going into qualifiers."
Those qualifiers will not be viewed as a formality, even though the USA reached the 2012 Olympics in London by sweeping through a similar CONCACAF preliminary tournament by a 38-0 scoring record. "It feels different [from 2010] in that we aren’t taking any of these games for granted," said striker Abby Wambach. "I can see the intensity and I can see the focus in people’s eyes probably more so than four years ago. And to be quite honest, the team is more difficult to make right now."
As Wambach pointed out, Sermanni’s predecessor Pia Sundhage, who left after winning the 2012 Olympics, hardly ever rotated her starting lineup. Her successors both have, cognizant as they are of the need to build depth now that it will take seven games to win the World Cup and competition has come along in leaps and bounds. In the pair of games against Mexico, 12 total substitutes came on, all making a profound impact. This team, it is fairly safe to say, is deeper than ever before.
Of the 28 players in camp, however, just 20 will make the qualifying roster. It’s unclear how many players teams will get to take to the World Cup — 21 or 23 — but either way, some players who might start for any other team in the world will miss the cut. "Today proved that Jill’s job of making this 20-person roster is going to prove to be very difficult," said Wambach.
"I’m going to go back and kind of mull it a little bit and talk to the staff, but I think we got some answers," Ellis said of her upcoming decision. "This is a tough, tough job. That’s a fantastic group of 28 players we have out there."
Ellis doesn’t like to speak of systems or formations, preferring to refer to roles floating in a fluid system. She downplays it somewhat, but she has made significant alterations from the style the USA had played for more than a decade. Rather than central midfielders, two wingers and two strikers, she plays with three central midfielders to gobble up more and higher possession and three forwards to widen the play.
Settling into that new ‘system’ has proved a major pastime in her short tenure. "It has been an adjustment," said Wambach. "There are definitely different roles that have been set in place with this new formation."
There is a growing ease in the new tactical scheme. "We know what she wants us to do and it’s getting comfortable on the field and being able to execute that as the next step," said Rapinoe.
Things, in other words, are coming together. "Moving forward, I’m confident, our team is confident," said Wambach. "I think you can tell from the way we’ve been playing."