USWNT face first reality check following World Cup glory

The defending Women's World Cup champions will take on familiar foe Brazil in a highly-anticipated friendly match at CenturyLink Field on Wednesday night.

Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

SEATTLE —  

Goodbye Victory Tour, hello Marta.

At Wednesday’s match at CenturyLink Field in Seattle, Wash. against Brazil (10 p.m. ET), the party-like, cross-country showcase for the United States women’s national soccer team morphs into a big, ol’ reality check.

It’s not that the No. 6-ranked Brazil poses definite danger for defeat of Carli Lloyd & Co. There’s always the chance that Marta won’t play. Plus, Brazil proved to be a lesser power during the Women’s World Cup, where Australia beat them in the knockout round, leaving Marta and her teammates to wonder if their soccer-loving country was doing enough to build up its women’s national team program.

Still, this showdown between the always-alluring Brazilians is the first sniff at legitimate competition for the U.S. women since they defeated Japan on July 5 in the World Cup finale. Since then, the reigning champs have been on a nationwide tour celebrating their first Women’s World Cup win in 16 years.

With partying in the U.S.A. their prime motto, adoring fans of the U.S. were willing to overlook the fact that Costa Rica and Haiti were sadly overmatched. The U.S. scored four ridiculously easy wins as fans in cities like Pittsburgh, Chattanooga, Detroit and Birmingham had to be satisfied by the mere presence of Lloyd, Alex Morgan, Tobin Heath, et al.

But this week marks a shift in the quality of the opponent, especially after Australia had to pull out of the last back-to-back series in September due to a players’ strike. Brazil will get the adrenaline going for the likes of Hope Solo, who will be playing in front of an enthusiastic hometown crowd. Solo, along with Lloyd and Megan Rapinoe, are all contenders for the FIFA World Player of the Year award.

SIGHTS AND SOUNDS

Along with a step up in opponent, the venue should prove exciting, too. Seattle is a first-rate soccer fan city, and this match brings the U.S. squad here for the first time since 2002, when two Women’s World Cup Qualifying matches were played at SAFECO Field, home of the Seattle Mariners. Seattle has since welcomed the Sounders of MLS and the Reign of the NWSL, for whom Solo and star midfielder Megan Rapinoe play.

But for all the fanfare associated with this Victory Tour, this match is a shift in intensity and strategy. In addition to the 23 players on the Women’s World Cup roster, U.S. coach Jill Ellis has called-up eight new faces for this pair of games against Brazil, including Sunday’s match at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando. With 31 players at her disposal, it will be curious to see how Ellis plans to combat Marta & Co.

"We are looking forward to two competitive games against Brazil. They are a highly motivated team and certainly they have some exciting and dangerous attacking players. These are the kinds of games where we get tested and it provides a chance to evaluate our player pool. The more matches we can play like this, the better,’’ Ellis said.

So not only is this the first Victory Tour match against a top-notch opponent, this marks a point at which Ellis is starting to look at new players ahead of the U.S. team’s next challenge: 2016 Olympic qualifiers. The Olympic qualifying tournament takes place in Houston and Dallas in February, when the U.S. will be a favorite to take one of two CONCACAF spots.

THE TEAM THIS WEEK:

Of the seven players Ellis has called up, four have already earned caps with the U.S. women’s national team. That includes Crystal Dunn, who has already appeared with the U.S. women on this Victory Tour. Dunn, the NWSL Player of the Year, had two tremendous outings for the U.S. women against Haiti and appears a lock for a roster spot in 2016. Dunn scored two goals with three assists over the two games against Haiti, a bittersweet confirmation that she was the most talented U.S. player to not make the Women’s World Cup roster.

The other three capped players making an appearance this week include forward Lindsey Horan (Paris Saint-Germain), midfielder Samantha Mewis (NWSL Rookie of the Year finalist, Western NY Flash) and midfielder Christine Nairn (Washington Spirit).

Four “rookies” will also be in camp: Defender Jaelene Hinkle (22, Western NY Flash), defender Emily Sonnett (22, University of Virginia), defender Gina Lewandowski (30, FC Bayern Munich) and forward Stephanie McCaffrey (22, Boston Breakers), who trained with the U.S. side last year.

WHO’S LEAVING:

Midfielders Shannon Boxx and Lauren Holiday and defender Lori Chalupny are all going to play their final games for the U.S. women’s team this week. Boxx will end her career in Seattle, while Holiday, 27, and Chalupny, 31, will say goodbye in Orlando.

"Wow I thought I was handling this game w/ my emotions in check until I started reading all of ur messages. I can’t thx u 4 all your support," USA veteran Boxx admitted on her Twitter account on Tuesday.  

Should the U.S. qualify for the Olympics, Ellis must pare the roster down to 18 players. So with only two goalkeepers likely heading to Rio, these retirements leave only 19 from the 2015 WWC roster.

Abby Wambach, 35, has yet to decide what she’s going to do. Retirement seems a distinct possibility as the all-time leading goalscorer has been struggling with her future plans. “I wish someone would just make the decision for me,’’ Wambach told FOX Soccer recently.

However, with U.S. Soccer officials adamant that Wambach’s decision is hers alone to make, it’s unclear whether Ellis will push Wambach for a decision any time soon. Ellis said her meetings with Wambach are private and gave no indication that the U.S. is looking to revamp its roster, given Wambach’s limited mobility and role now as a “super sub.’’

Solo, 34, said she wants to continue with the national team. The status of a domestic violence case from last year remains unresolved after a King County Superior Court judge reversed the dismissal granted by the Kirkland Municipal Court on two counts of fourth-degreee assault. The decision rendered earlier this month means Solo will stand charges once again at a date to be determined.

It is unknown how the charges will impact Solo’s future with the team, though U.S. Soccer has stood by Solo since the start of this legal process and she possesses numerous procedural avenues to contest any dismissal from the team, pursuant to a memorandum of understanding regarding collective bargaining between the players and the federation.

HEAR US OUT

WHAT’S ON TAP:

The USWNT will play four matches in December, including two against Trinidad & Tobago. The first will be on Dec. 6 at Aloha Stadium in Honolulu (8 p.m. ET, FS1) and on Dec. 10 at the Alamodome in San Antonio (9 p.m. ET, ESPN2).

The United States will finish their 2015 schedule with a match against an opponent yet to be named on Dec. 13 and against China in New Orleans on Dec. 16. The finale in New Orleans put the U.S. up against a China side combining youth from the 2015 World Cup and the veterans who so epically battled the U.S. in the 1999 Women’s World Cup final.