Just as soon as the United States women’s national team had stepped off the field from an 8-0 trouncing of Mexico in a friendly on Saturday, players and staff spoke of wanting to dial their game up another notch. They face Mexico again here on Thursday (live, 7 p.m. ET), in the final tune-up before the 2014 CONCACAF Women’s Championship next month, which will qualify three teams for the 2015 Women’s World Cup in Canada and a fourth for a playoff.
In this last chance to get things right, the USA will hope to continue building momentum and to further implement and ingrain their updated playing style. Because this USA team is competing with itself much more than with Mexico.
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El Tri shocked the USA by knocking it out in the semifinals of the 2010 Women’s Gold Cup, relegating and humiliating them to a playoff with Italy — after they beat Costa Rica for third place — to reach the World Cup. This time around, though, while most of that Mexican team is still there, the chasm in ability is vast. Plainly, this Mexico team couldn’t compete in the last game in Sandy, Utah. They aren’t a threat at next month’s tournament by any stretch of the imagination.
There is, however, some value in playing them again for the United States, even if it takes some digging and sleuthing to find it. The USA is trying to winnow down its squad from 28 to the 20 who will play in October while implement newish head coach Jill Ellis’s fresh system of overlapping flanks, high pressure and advanced midfield possession. With all this at stoke, no competitive repetitions can be a waste. "At the end of the day," Ellis told FOXSoccer.com.com, "it’s super competitive."
"All of us are competing for spots," said midfielder Carli Lloyd. "And we’re still working on things. We don’t want the level to drop. We want to come out and still have a really good performance."
A good performance would entail more clinical finishing — yes, even in the wake of an 8-0 win. It would see the backs pushing up further forward to act as the wingers and the midfield joining in with the attack. It entails more attacking pressure; more defensive pressure. A better understanding of roles as different players cycle through the positions in the new system. Because that’s what they’ll have to do during the grueling five-games-in-12-days proposition of qualifiers. Not to mention potentially seven games at the World Cup against increasingly capable opposition, on unforgiving artificial turf.
"The performance piece is where we have to build the momentum — the timing, the relationships," Ellis explained. "We want to build the chemistry but we also want to teach relationships."
Ellis has harped on these things during practices again and again in this camp. The women’s game has moved on. Superior athleticism and some skill alone won’t cut it anymore. Tactical sophistication is no longer something left for the lesser teams in order for them to punch above their weight. "With the competitiveness of all the teams around the world, it’s pivotal now to really separate ourselves," said Lloyd.
Sharpness must be built. The margins will be thinner than ever at this Women’s World Cup, after the Americans lost the final of the last one on penalties. "Against teams like Brazil, France, Germany, it’s going to take that one chance," added Lloyd.
Meanwhile, now that the National Women’s Soccer League has just concluded its second season, the USA is spending less time together than in some years past. Familiarity has frayed a little around the edges. "A lot of teams have very different styles of how coaches want different things done different ways," said defender Becky Sauerbrunn. "So it takes a little bit of re-learning."
Fitness must also be reacquired, following the strain and drain of the club campaigns. "They’re just coming off a season, they’re starting to build," said Ellis.
Which is all to say that this game against Mexico is less about the result than it is about the opportunities it represents when the eye is cast on the long run. The chance to build fitness and sharpness and momentum and familiarity. To construct a team capable not only of beating Mexico, but of finally winning the World Cup. "What is your end point?" Ellis asked rhetorically. "That’s what we’re excited about, where we could go with this team. It’s about how we can continue to improve and refine."
The real games come next month. And then eight months after that, in Canada. First though, the Americans have a dress rehearsal.