USWNT hone in on establishing depth with their upcoming friendlies

BY Laura Vecsey • May 8, 2015

SAN JOSE, Calif. --

Taking no chances: That's the name of the game for the 23 players on the U.S. women's national team three weeks out from shipping off to Canada for the 2015 Women's World Cup.

Well, make that 22 players.

Striker Alex Morgan, the young speedster dubbed "Baby Horse" for her relentless runs on goal, will sit out Sunday in the U.S. friendly against the Republic of Ireland at Avaya Stadium (live, FOX Sports 1, 2:30 p.m. ET).  Morgan has a bone bruise in her left knee and will also be sidelined next Sunday against Mexico at Stubhub Stadium in Carson, Calif. (live, May 17, FOX Sports 1, 9 p.m. ET).

U.S. team officials call the move to sit Morgan for two of the U.S. team's three World Cup Send-off Series friendlies cautionary. They say Morgan, an integral part of the U.S. attack, will be fine in time for the first 2015 Women's World Cup opening match on June 8 vs. Australia.

"We're shutting her down now because we can,'' U.S. coach Jill Ellis said Friday at the San Jose Earthquakes training facility.

While Morgan is a critical part of the U.S. attack, her absence the next two games may only further highlight the depth up front. Christen Press is ready for a breakout World Cup season, and Amy Rodriguez and Sydney Leroux combine for tremendous speed and firepower. Abby Wambach is the world's leading goal-scorer and ready to go.

The good news for the U.S. is the return of Ali Krieger. The 30-year-old right back suffered a scary concussion during the season opener for the Washington Spirit of National Women's Soccer League three weeks ago. The blow sent Krieger to the turf in a daze and she was administered to by medical staff for eight minutes before being removed on a stretcher and taken to a hospital.

"The only thing I can remember is the cross and then waking up on the ground wondering how did I get here. It was scary because I couldn't feel my legs for awhile,'' she said.

But after being seen by doctors in Baltimore and D.C. and being carefully worked through concussion protocols through the Spirit and the U.S. women's national team staff, Krieger declared herself 110 percent back. So has Ellis.

"Kriegs is great. Really good. I'm really happy. She's been 100 percent in training,'' Ellis said.

With an expanded field of 24 teams in the World Cup this year, the roster was also expanded to allow 23 players. That has allowed Ellis the chance to work in players into different roles. She said she is on target in terms of preparing the team and will now have to use different lineups with Morgan out the next two games.

"We're still focusing. This is kind of chance for us to review and do some scenarios in these next couple of games, but we're in the fine-tuning stage. We've looked really sharp mentally and physically,'' Ellis said.

But with players' health paramount to the U.S. coaching and fitness staff, the issue of artificial grass still rankles players. In addition to the expanded field, the turf fields at all six WWC venues loom as a threat. Earlier this year, Wambach and other top players sought a legal case against FIFA about the lack of grass, and while they wound up dropping the lawsuit, the crusade continues -- this time in the court of public opinion.

FIFA officials better get ready. It doesn't sound like they are going to escape without a heavy and continuing dose of shame. As the World Cup draws closer, many players are again voicing their anger at FIFA's decision to not deliver grass fields for the event. Worse for FIFA: More evidence that they may really not have done everything they could to protect the health of the players and the quality of the tournament.

In an interview this week with former U.S. women's national team star Julie Foudy, Wambach said that FIFA rejected a bid by grass care company Scotts, which Wambach said offered to install grass fields for all six venues. She said she heard about Scotts' offer directly from a FIFA official.

Wambach is not alone. In an piece she authored for Derek Jeter's athletes' website earlier this week, the American midfielder Megan Rapinoe called the use of artificial turf a game changer that will impact the competition.

"The ball bounces differently -- it tends to skip off the surface instead of settling down. It also feels different when you run. And that's the crucial point: I think the turf will be a lot harder on our bodies. You're going to see the physical toll add up as the tournament goes on. Seven games on turf is a lot, especially when you're flying thousands of miles across Canada to different venues for the matches,'' Rapinoe said.

She added: "The good news is that because women from across the sport came together to protest FIFA's decision, I really believe that they'll never have another Women's World Cup on turf again. So we can at least take that positive out of it."

For now, the turf issue is not affecting the preparation of the U.S. team. Midfielder Carli Lloyd said the team is peaking at just the right time. Krieger said the players are looking for every small and big way to make each other better.

The result should be a nice Mother's Day contest for the 16,000 fans who've bought tickets for Sunday's game at Avaya Stadium. With a capacity of about 18,000 spectators including standing-room-only passes, there's a chance the game could be a sellout.

That won't match the 35,817 fans who packed Busch Stadium in April to see the U.S. defeat New Zealand 4-0. But the U.S. is getting excited about playing to full houses. Their game on May 17 in Carson, Calif., has drawn ticket sales of just about 20,000, U.S. Soccer officials said. The stadium there can accommodate about 24,000.


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