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BRIDGE YEAR TO THE WOMEN’S WORLD CUP

With the qualifying tournament for the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup not taking place until October, most of 2014 will be a proving ground for players in both international and club competition. Young players, established 20-somethings and veterans alike will be looking to show they can make a consistent positive impact on the team and earn a coveted spot on the Women’s World Cup qualifying roster.

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 be making 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, World Cup hopefuls will have plenty of opportunities to state their case for Canada.

The U.S. team will play a handful of domestic friendlies in 2014, three in January, and then several spread out over spring, summer and fall, with up to 10 home matches on the docket before qualifying.

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 2013 in the top spot in the FIFA Women’s World Rankings, marking their sixth year as the world’s no.1 team. Through the end of 2013 the team had lost just nine matches in regulation since the end of the 2003 FIFA Women’s World Cup and will look to keep building the tradition that has made the USA one of the most successful women’s soccer nations in history.

ROSTER SPOTS UP FOR GRABS 

While the U.S. player pool is as deep as it’s ever been, the challenge of finding the best mix of young talent and vastly experienced veterans is a one that many coaches face. The USA will of course be relying extensively on the pool of talent that took them to and through the Olympic Games, but there is an exciting infusion of young players coming into the squad.

In goal, the USA has depth that most countries would envy. Long-time starter Hope Solo is playing at the top of her game and has a firm hold on No. 1 spot. Veteran Nicole Barnhart, the third-most capped goalkeeper in U.S. history, has always performed extremely well when called upon, while Jill Loyden, Ashlyn Harris and Alyssa Naeher – all undisputed starters for their clubs – also continue to push for playing time.

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. Rampone is one of four center-backs who have seen almost all the minutes in the middle over the past two years. Rachel Van Hollebeke has played many games next to Rampone, but Becky Sauerbrunn has also played crucial minutes at center-back and has shown herself to be one of the USA’s most consistent players. In addition, Whitney Engen’s development, helped in part by stints overseas in England and Sweden, has given the USA tremendous depth in the center of the back four.

The USA is increasing its depth at outside back as well. Ali Krieger is fully recovered from ACL surgery in 2012, while young star Crystal Dunn - a member of the USA’s 2012 U-20 Women’s World Cup champions and the 2012 MAC Hermann Trophy winner - is short on caps, she’s full of talent, giving the USA two excellent defenders as well as attacking options down the right side.

Meghan Klingenberg, a starter on the USA’s U-20 world champions in 2008, has also emerged as an excellent option at right or left back while Kelley O’Hara, a forward during her entire college, Youth National Team and Women’s National Team career, switched full-time to outside back in 2012 and played every minute of the Olympics. She has recovered from reconstructive ankle surgery and is making a bid to reclaim her starting spot. In addition, left back Stephanie Cox has regained her fitness and form after giving birth to her first child in 2013 and adds tremendous experience to the USA’s core of flank defenders.

The USA boasts several excellent combinations of center midfielders. Veteran Carli Lloyd, who famously scored both goals in the 2-1 victory against Japan in the 2012 Olympic gold medal game and bagged the winner in overtime in the 1-0 victory against Brazil in the 2008 Olympic gold medal game, is playing some of the best soccer of her career. The 2013 NWSL MVP Lauren Holiday is also playing at a consistently high level, while Shannon Boxx, one of the USA’s all-time greats, will look to make a final run at a World Cup after she returns following the birth of her first child. Morgan Brian and Samantha Mewis, two young center-midfielders who were members of the USA’s 2012 FIFA Under-20 Women’s World Cup champions, have shown some tremendous potential. Brian, in particular, showed a comfort level immediately with the international game and has earned numerous starts in her young career.

The USA is also 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 as she zooms past 200 caps. The crafty Megan Rapinoe, who was a breakout star at the 2011 FIFA 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 Tobin Heath 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 gotten some decent playing time of late and exhibits 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. The all-time record holder for international goals for men or women is still scoring and is the USA’s emotional leader. She is now focused on what will be her last Women’s World Cup. 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.

Speaking of fan favorites, 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 has not stopped scoring. She finished a memorable goal in the Olympics in the quarterfinal against New Zealand and has consistently been a menace to every defense she has faced over the past few years. Christen Press, who brings a different skill set to the front line, has also shown tenaciousness, speed and goal-scoring ability. No American player scored more goals for club and country in 2013 than Press, giving the USA options in players and combinations on the front line.

With forward Amy Rodriguez back from her pregnancy leave as well, and Holiday also an option up top, the front line is stocked with goal scorers.

In addition, bolstered by their performances in pro leagues in the USA and around the world, several young players have made headway into furthering their international careers. They include 2013 NWSL Rookie of the Year Erika Tymrak, 20-year-old Lindsey Horan scoring goals for PSG in France, midfielder Julie Johnston of the Chicago Red Stars and forward Sarah Hagen, who was one of the leading scorers in the German Women’s Bundesliga over the past few years before returning to the USA to play with FC Kansas City.

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. 

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