CARY, North Carolina – In less than two months, the United States women’s national team begin their campaign to qualify for the 2015 Women’s World Cup in Kansas City. Not quite eight months after that, their World Cup kicks off in Canada — provided they’ve qualified first.
It’s been more than two years since the USA last played in a major tournament, earning gold medals for a third time in a row at the 2012 London Olympics. It seemed then that an endless expanse of vacant time stretched out before them, but opportunities to get ready are now suddenly sparse. The Americans will take on Switzerland here on Wednesday night, after which follow a camp and two more friendlies with Mexico in September. That’s all the time remaining to sort out a team with a few real issues to set right.
From afar, it may seem that these World Cup Qualifiers will be a formality. In the qualifying tournament for said Olympics, the USA posted five straight wins with a 38-0 goal record. Four years ago, however, before the Americans lost the 2011 Women’s World Cup final to Japan on penalties, they very nearly didn’t qualify at all. They were upset by Mexico in the semifinals, had to beat Costa Rica in the third-place game to stay alive, and then took two narrow 1-0 victories in a play-off with Italy to make it to Germany.
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Head coach Jill Ellis is just four games into the job after her predecessor Tom Sermanni was suddenly dismissed on April 6, a month after a disastrous and worst-ever Algarve Cup performance.
Results have been mixed since then. In her first game, when she was still the interim manager, Ellis beat China 3-0. The 1-1 tie with Canada that followed was hardly convincing. And in the games with France in June, after Ellis was installed full-time, a 1-0 win and 2-2 tie perhaps flattered the Americans some.
Had the French been more clinical in front of the oft-exposed American goal, they might have mustered more. At the other end, chances were in short supply for the USA. This is a worrying trend. The USA have struggled to create and convert chances all year long. Even in the games they won big, it often took a good deal of time to unlock meek opposition.
In this young Swiss team, whom they have never faced before, they will get a tough test. La Nati, as they are nicknamed, are the first and only European team to have qualified for the World Cup, dropping just two points in nine qualifiers and posting a 48-1 goal difference. "They’ve got some really solid attacking personalities, they’ve gotten some good results — defensively, they’re organized," Ellis told FOX Soccer. "I envision it to be a good, competitive match for us." Playmaker Lara Dickenmann and Ramona Bachmann stand out in particular.
Switzerland also enjoy a familiarity and cohesion that has been elusive for the Americans, courtesy of the managerial change and subsequent player turnover. "They’ve been going through their World Cup qualifiers fairly regularly for the past 11 months," said Ellis. "They’ve had time together, matches together. We’re in the middle of our league. They’re going to have a fairly good rhythm. Obviously for me, I’m still sort of putting a few pieces together and looking at some different things."
Ellis hopes to address the structural chance-creation issue by leveraging more of the USA’s unrivaled and unprecedented depth up front - in the form of Abby Wambach, Alex Morgan, Sydney Leroux, Christen Press and Amy Rodriguez – by playing three strikers rather than two, as Sermanni did. "One of the things I think we can afford to do is get into a bigger, more aggressive attacking shape," she said. "For me, our buildup is certainly an area where we can evolve. What I anticipate at the qualifiers is teams that will set up strong defensively. So what I’d love to see in this game is a good tempo and a good, sharp ball movement."
On Wednesday, Ellis told FOX Soccer, Press and Leroux will flank Morgan up front. Behind these three mobile strikers, who all like to drift wide, Megan Rapinoe will be tried out in the 10 spot, as an advanced playmaker. Lauren Holiday will play as a deep-sitting distributor. "We need to be a bit more dominant in possession in the final third," said Rapinoe. "That is something that’s going to ultimately make us a contender to win the World Cup. Everybody has the proper skillset."
The Americans, in short, have concerning deficiencies to address in short order. "We can use all the excuses in the book," said veteran midfielder Carli Lloyd. "But it’s important that, even though this trip is really short, we still take care of business. We need to treat this as another game to prepare for qualification in October."
In front of a sold out WakeMed Soccer Park, where goalkeeper Hope Solo can break Briana Scurry’s all-time national team shutout record, the Americans are on the clock.