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ROAD TO THE WOMEN’S WORLD CUP

With U.S. Women’s National Team having taken care of business at the CONCACAF Women’s Championship in October of 2014, the team booked its tickets to the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup. That meant that the first half of 2015 was totally focused on preparing for the tournament that will take place with 24 countries for the first time. The USA has a quality schedule of internationals in 2015, which combined with some intense training camps, will give established 20-somethings and veterans alike the chance to show they can make a consistent positive impact on the team and earn a coveted spot on the Women’s World Cup 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 have had plenty of opportunities to state their case for Canada 2015.

After a traditional January training camp in Los Angeles, the U.S. Women will play six matches in Europe over February and March (in France and England and then four at the annual Algarve Cup in Portugal) and then come home for four domestic friendly games before heading to Winnipeg, Canada, to prepare for its opener against Australia on June 8.

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.

At the end of 2014, the U.S. Women dropped from the top spot in the FIFA Women’s World Rankings, a position it had held for seven years, to second, but through the end of 2014 the team had lost just 12 matches in regulation since the end of the 2003 FIFA Women’s World Cup. The American women will look to keep building the tradition that has made the USA one of the most successful women’s soccer nations in history.

WWC ROSTER SPOTS UP FOR GRABS

While the U.S. player pool is as deep as it’s ever been, the challenge of putting together the best mix of young talent and vastly experienced veterans is 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 still at the top of her game and has a firm hold on the No. 1 spot. ASHLYN HARRIS and ALYSSA NAEHER – who have excellent club experience and who have been in the WNT programs for quite some time – continue to push for playing time. In addition, veteran NICOLE BARNHART, the third-most capped goalkeeper in U.S. history, has always performed extremely well when called upon.

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. back line. Rampone is one of five center backs who have seen almost all the minutes in the middle over the past two years. BECKY SAUERBRUNN, who has played some high-pressure games at center back, has become a consistent and rock-solid presence. WHITNEY ENGEN’s development, helped in part by stints overseas in England and Sweden, has given the USA tremendous depth in the center where she is a physical presence while gritty veteran RACHEL VAN HOLLEBEKE has played many games next to Rampone. The youth at center-back is represented by JULIE JOHNSTON, who marshalled the USA to the 2012 U-20 Women’s World Cup championship with a Bronze Ball performance in Japan, and as she gains experience is showing she can do the job as well.

The USA is also increasing its depth at outside back as well. The return of LORI CHALUPNY to the fold gives the team a tremendous option at left back, while ALI KRIEGER has been in fine form for the past year and was one of the USA’s best players at the last Women’s World Cup. 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, but long on talent, giving the USA another attacking option down the flanks.

KELLEY O’HARA, a forward during her entire college, Youth National Team and until 2012, Women’s National Team career, switched full-time to outside back in 2012 and played every minute of the Olympics. She is a natural attacking talent who is an option to start on either side. The tremendously skillful and savvy 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.

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, whether it be centrally or in more of a wider attacking role. The 2013 NWSL MVP LAUREN HOLIDAY is also playing at a consistently high level, while the USA’s youngest player, 22-year-old MORGAN BRIAN, has shown she has the skill set to be a consistent presence in the starting lineup. SHANNON BOXX, one of the USA’s all-time greats, will look to make a final run at a World Cup after returning to the team following the birth of her first child.

The USA is also remarkably stocked at flank midfield, 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 more playing time over the past few years. O’Hara, Klingenberg and CHRISTEN PRESS have shown they can also play wide midfield.

The USA is spoiled with a bevy of talented goal scorers with 2012 FIFA Women’s World Player of the Year ABBY WAMBACH still creating dangerous chances for herself and her teammates. The all-time record holder for international goals for men or women is the USA’s emotional leader and is now focused on what will be her last Women’s World Cup. Of course, the emergence over the past few years of ALEX MORGAN – perhaps the fastest and most powerful runner at goal in the world – gives the USA a dimension of being able to stretch teams all over the field. Her timely and dynamic goal scoring has made her a tremendous fan favorite in the USA and around the world.

Speaking of fan favorites, SYDNEY LEROUX, the USA’s all-time leading scorer in FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup competition, has scored more goals than any U.S. player over the past three years besides Wambach. In 2012, she set a U.S. record for goals as a substitute and has since earned herself increasing starts. Forward AMY RODRIGUEZ came back strong from the birth of her first child and had a stellar NWSL season, leading FC Kansas City to the championship by scoring both goals in the final. Press, who brings a different skill set to the front line, has also shown tenacity, 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.

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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