NEW YEAR, NEW COACH, NEW GOALS
After an emotional, exciting, historic and highly successful 2012, the U.S. Women’s National Team will now re-focus and re-shape under new head coach Tom Sermanni. With Women’s World Cup qualifying likely not commencing until the end of 2014, and with the new National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) set to begin play in the spring, one of Sermanni’s main goals will be expanding the player pool. Early in his tenure he has shown the willingness to give young players a chance to perform, and he will continue to invest in veterans who he believes can have an impact as the world’s top-ranked women’s soccer team looks toward qualification for the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Canada.
The majority of the team that won the 2012 Olympic gold medal in London, England, in front of 80,203 fans at Wembley Stadium will make a run at the next Women’s World Cup roster, but there should also be plenty of new faces. With many months, games and training camps to evaluate, as well as the next generation of professional players fortunate to get a chance to improve in NWSL’s day-to-day club environment, Sermanni will have plenty of time to identify the core of the team he hopes to bring to Canada.
Although the schedule of international matches after the traditional two-year World Cup/Olympic cycle has generally been scaled back, Sermanni will still have plenty of high-level matches in which to evaluate players as well as the luxury to bring some young players along slowly. He will also be able to watch a complete schedule of NWSL matches to identify any in-form new and/or younger players and continue to watch the progress of his regulars on the club level.
The U.S. team will play a handful of domestic friendlies in 2013, two in February and then several spread out over the fall. Of course, the USA will play in the annual Algarve Cup in Portugal and has several high-level away exhibitions scheduled, in Germany, the Netherlands and Canada.
The USA has won the last three Olympic gold medals and four overall, after taking home silver in 2000 and winning the inaugural gold medal for women’s soccer in 1996, but the World Cup Trophy has eluded the team since 1999. After third-place finishes in 2003 and 2007, and a second in 2011, players and staff will be fully committed to doing whatever it takes to reach the top of the podium in 2015.
The U.S. Women began and ended 2012 in the top spot in the FIFA Women’s World Rankings. Through the end of 2012 the team had lost just nine matches in regulation time since the end of the 2003 FIFA Women’s World Cup – just six under former head coach Pia Sundhage – and will look to keep building the tradition that has made the USA one of the most successful women’s soccer nations in history.
SERMANNI LOOKS TO CREATE COMPETITION FOR ROSTER SPOTS
Sermanni comes to the USA after coaching Australia in two Women’s World Cup tournaments (2007 and 2011). He knows what it takes to compete on the world’s stage, and he likes what sees in the USA’s current player pool. The challenge of finding the perfect mix of young talent and vastly experienced veterans is one that many coaches face, but with so many talented options, it will surely be an exciting one to undertake.
The USA will of course be relying extensively on the pool of talent that took them to and through the Olympic Games in the United Kingdom, but there will be an infusion of young players over the next few years.
In goal, the USA has depth that most countries would envy. Long-time starter Hope Solo will use a good chunk of 2013 to recover from wrist surgery but should be fit and healthy in plenty of time to lay a claim to the No. 1 spot. Veteran Nicole Barnhart, who is approaching 50 caps, has always performed extremely well when called upon, and the duo has been the USA’s first-choice ‘keepers since 2008. Pushing Solo and Barnhart will be Jill Loyden, who will be recovering for a second time from a broken bone in her hand, as well as Ashlyn Harris, the USA’s starter at the 2002 and 2004 FIFA U-19 Women’s World Cup who now has several valuable seasons of professional soccer on her resume. Young goalkeepers Jane Campbell, who was the USA’s starter at the 2012 FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup, and U.S. U-23 ‘keeper Adrianna Franch, who will be playing her first pro season in the NWSL, will also be pushing for training camp call-ups.
U.S. captain Christie Rampone, the most capped active player in the world and still a defensive force, put off retirement for another potential run to the Women’s World Cup and adds tremendous experience and stability to the U.S. backline. She is joined by several players with extensive experience and the versatility to play various positions across the back four. The USA has four other players who have shown they can play in the center or at outside back. Rachel Buehler has consistently been Rampone’s partner in the middle but has also shown an ability to play both outside back positions. Becky Sauerbrunn played some crucial minutes at center-back as a substitute for Buehler in the semifinal and final at the 2012 Olympics and has shown to be an extremely reliable option on defense. After several years of trying to break into the program, Whitney Engen has shown signs of being a solid option at center back as well. Julie Johnston, the 2012 U.S. Soccer Young Female Athlete of the Year and the captain of the U.S. team that won the 2012 FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup, is just starting to break into the U.S. team as one of the youngest players in the pool.
The USA is increasing its depth at outside back as well. While Amy LePeilbet, who started all six games in the Women’s World Cup at left back and five games at the 2012 Olympics, will have to recover from ACL surgery to regain her spot on the U.S. back line, Ali Krieger is fully recovered from her own ACL surgery and shows signs of locking down the right back spot in which she performed so well at the 2011 Women’s World Cup.
Kelley O’Hara, a forward or flank midfielder during her entire college, youth national team and full national team career, switched full-time to outside back in 2012, played every minute of the Olympics and has turned into a highly productive player at left back. Meghan Klingenberg, a starter on the USA’s U-20 world champions in 2008, has shown promise during the very beginning of her full international career, playing well at both right back and right midfield, and after recovering from shoulder surgery is ready to make a run at a regular spot.
Crystal Dunn, a member of the USA’s 2012 U-20 Women’s World Cup champions and the 2012 MAC Hermann Trophy winner, played both center back and outside back at the youth level, but it seems her future with the senior side lies on the flank.
The USA boasts an excellent combination of center midfielders in veterans Carli Lloyd and Shannon Boxx, who have complemented each other well since the 2008 Olympics and who played key roles in winning the 2012 Olympic gold medal game. Lloyd famously scored both goals in the 2-1 victory against Japan whi8le Boxx recovered from injury early in the tournament to play the entire game. The duo will look to keep that chemistry going, but the U.S. has other options in the center as well. Both Lauren Cheney and Tobin Heath have shown the ability to play attacking midfielder, although Heath is a more natural flank player and Cheney played on the outside during the Women’s World Cup in Germany. Cheney is a long-time striker who has proven her worth at that position on the international level, but she has also shown some tremendous qualities in the midfield with her ability to hold the ball high, allowing her team to get up the field while collapsing the defense and opening up the flanks as she is a talented final passer. Heath is perhaps the most technically gifted player on the U.S. team, and her composure and ability to break down defenses on the dribble give the USA some tempting options in the center of the park.
Yael Averbuch, who possesses one of the best shots and most accurate long balls on the team, has been a part of the national teams program for quite a while, but bolstered by a stretch playing in Europe, she has shown the potential to make an impact at defensive midfield on the international level as well.
The USA is remarkably stocked at flank midfield, going four-deep at the position, something rarely seen on the U.S. team in past years. Veteran Heather O’Reilly has been a consistent positive presence at right midfield over the years and holds the U.S. record for consecutive games played. The crafty Megan Rapinoe, who was a breakout star at the 2011 Women’s World Cup and continued her great run at the Olympics, has shown she can play on the right or the left. Of course, the remarkably skillful Heath, a deceptive dribbler, is always an option at either flank midfield position, and her increased strength and experience have earned her increased playing time over the past few years. Kristie Mewis, a true left-footed player and the 2008 U.S. Soccer Young Female Athlete of the Year, has shown signs of being an impact player and exhibits tremendous promise for the future.
The USA is spoiled with a bevy of talented goal scorers led by the 2012 FIFA Women’s World Player of the Year Abby Wambach. Fast approaching Mia Hamm’s all-time international scoring record, Wambach will once again be relied on for goals and emotional leadership. Of course, the emergence of Alex Morgan – perhaps the fastest and most powerful runner at goal in the world – has given the USA a whole new dimension. Her timely and dynamic goal scoring has made her a tremendous fan favorite in the USA and around the world.
While Cheney is an option up top as well, young Sydney Leroux – the USA’s all-time leading scorer in FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup competition – burst onto the full international stage in 2012, setting a U.S. record for goals as a substitute and scoring a memorable goal in the Olympics. Christen Press, who brings a different skill set to the front line, has also shown tenaciousness, speed and goal-scoring ability.
Two long-time veterans will be coming back from pregnancy in 2013; if forward Amy Rodriguez and defender Stephanie Cox can regain their fitness and form during their club seasons, their presence would add even more depth to the U.S. team.
It is clear the USA has the foundation and talent to make a run at the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup title, but as is the case every year, the competition is constantly improving, and the target is always on the Americans’ back . Fortunately, those are challenges that the U.S. players relish as they look to continue their current upward trend in popularity while enhancing the profile of the women’s game at home and abroad.