USWNT eager to start vetting new generation of players

ORLANDO, Fla. —  

First, it was the feel-good Victory Tour for the United States women’s national team. Then came retirement announcements by three veteran players, which inspired call-ups for eight players who weren’t on the 2015 Women’s World Cup roster.

However you slice it, things have gotten interesting for the U.S. women’s national team — and that’s not including the way Marta and her Brazil national team nearly defeated the U.S. Wednesday in Seattle. It took a goal in the 85th minute by hard-charging Carli Lloyd to secure the 1-1 draw at CenturyLink Field to avoid a rare loss.

"Brazil is obviously taking this year very seriously with the Olympics in Rio. It’s good. I mean, these are the games we want to be tested. These are the games where it’s going to show what we need to work on, which is good,” Lloyd said after the match. "We’re going to have to be better than we were at the World Cup, going into Olympic qualifying and going into the Olympics. So it’s a good thing. I think it’s great to say we’ve got more room for improvement, each and every one of us. These are the games we want to play."

The goal that salvaged the draw against Brazil Wednesday affirmed Lloyd’s new role as the centerpiece of the U.S. offense — a declaration made only a few months ago when Lloyd was finally moved up top against Germany in the World Cup semifinals. By now, however, it’s clear that even with Lloyd as the offensive kingpin, there’s plenty of work — and changes — to come in order for the U.S. to move from its 2015 Women’s World Cup victory to the next era.

Shannon Boxx played her last game Wednesday. Lauren Holiday and Lori Chalupny will end their stellar careers Sunday at the Citrus Bowl. Abby Wambach, 35, is struggling to decide if she has the heart to train and compete in what would be her final Olympics, should the U.S. qualify in February. This changing of the guard has put a new spotlight on Lloyd and Alex Morgan as the key players at the top of the U.S. attack — an offense that sure looks like it will include 2015 NWSL Golden Boot winner Crystal Dunn.

Morgan, Lloyd — along with midfielder Megan Rapinoe — are the key players for the U.S. offense, and the near-loss against Brazil was a good wake-up call about how the U.S. needs to find its next groove. Brazil is going to be the toughest opponent the U.S. faces in the coming months, with a pair of games each against Trinidad and Tobago and China on deck for December’s Victory Tour closing dates. The veteran offensive stars for the U.S. seemed eager to shift from celebration to preparation.

"I think once we hit the later part of the game we wanted to push to get a goal. We haven’t lost a game at home in 10 years, so that was a big effort,” Morgan said.

"We really look forward to playing Brazil again in Orlando but, it’s actually an interesting time for the national team. We kind of took a break the last couple of weeks since the league ended and going into such a competitive match against Brazil (in Seattle on Wednesday.) I think it’s definitely something we have to step up for. We got our feet under us (in Seattle) and we’ll be better,” Morgan said.

Where Morgan has been paired with Wambach for most of her national team career, the key tandem is now Morgan and Lloyd, after the New Jersey native took over the U.S. offense and led the way to the first World Cup title in 16 years.

"I think Carli’s role has changed a little bit becoming the No. 10 in the World Cup and now us kind of playing up top together with her being a little underneath me, I think it’s about adjusting to each other and making sure we’re close to each other but making sure Carli is linking up with the midfield. It’s definitely a process,” Morgan said.

Since trouncing Costa Rica and Haiti in the first four Victory Tour games, Morgan said she’s pleased that Ellis has shaken things up by adding eight players to this camp, including Dunn, National Women’s Soccer League Rookie of the Year Danielle Colaprico, who is out with an injury; Samantha Mewis and Jaelene Hinkle — who both got their first caps with the U.S. team in Seattle.

"You know I feel like there’s still a lot of the same players but there are quite a few players retiring and it’s definitely a little bit of adjustments with new players in and a little bit of a lineup change since the World Cup, but I definitely think it’s good for Jill to look forward for the next cycle and how she wants to build the team now for the next World Cup, so I really like that she’s bringing in new players and putting them in pressure situations,” Morgan said.

With some breathing room at her disposal, and with Lloyd and Morgan the one-two punch at the top of the formation, Ellis looks like she’s ready to make things interesting. This week, so is Marta and Brazil.