Photo by ISIPhotos.com
By MIKE McCALL
Tom Sermanni couldn’t have asked for a much better start to his tenure at the helm of the U.S. women’s national team.
Six games in, Sermanni’s squad is unbeaten with a plus-15 goal differential, and a trip to Portugal ended with another Algarve Cup title. The team’s 18 goals have come via nine different players, and a host of young talent has stepped forward to give the new coach plenty of options as he gears up for the 2015 World Cup cycle.
Even the worst result — a 1-1 draw against Sweden and former U.S. coach Pia Sundhage — still propelled the Americans into the final in Portugal, and a handful of injuries have had little effect thus far.
Friday brings another chance to add to that impressive early résumé, as the U.S. takes on Germany in Offenbach at 12:15 p.m. It’s a rematch of the Algarve Cup title match and another clash of the top two teams in the FIFA World Rankings, and while this and Tuesday’s friendly at the Netherlands won’t carry much meaning, there are plenty of storylines to keep an eye on.
Here are five storylines to keep an eye on, along with the roster and our projected Starting XI:
1. The Youth Movement
Thus far, Sermanni appears much more experimental than Sundhage. Eight players on this roster have fewer than 10 appearances, and he included five who earned their first career caps earlier this year: forward Christen Press, midfielder Kristie Mewis, goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris, and defenders Crystal Dunn and Julie Johnston. Goalkeeper Adrianna Franch (uncapped) is also on board.
Of course, it’s not just about being in the squad, and Sermanni will be looking for more encouraging signs from the group.
The 24-year-old Press has had a monster debut, scoring four times in only six games, and she and 22-year-old Sydney Leroux (who emerged under Sundhage but got her first start under Sermanni) give the U.S. excellent options behind superstars Alex Morgan and Abby Wambach.
On the back line, Dunn, Johnston and Whitney Engen have tons of potential, and it’s a good bet that some of these names will find their way into the 2015 lineup.
After all, by then, more than half of the 2012 gold-medal squad will be 30, and turnover is inevitable as time passes.
The question is how soon these younger players can show they’re ready, and these road friendlies bring two more opportunities.
Watching the U.S. without Hope Solo in goal is a bit bizarre — like seeing the men minus Tim Howard — and that will be the case again for these matches.
Solo (wrist surgery) and Jill Loyden (hand surgery) are both out, leaving Nicole Barnhart as the leader. Behind her, Harris and Franch have one cap combined, and it’ll be interesting to see how they fare should Sermanni give one a shot. Harris’ lone start came in the draw with Sweden.
Is there a Brad Guzan in this group? It’s hard to argue with Barnhart’s results in Portugal, when she blanked China 5-0 and Germany 2-0.
3. Chasing Mia
Up top, all eyes are on Wambach as she edges closer to Mia Hamm’s all-time world scoring record of 158 goals. Abby sits at 154, and while it’s doubtful that she’ll catch Hamm in these two matches, every step is a big one.
Sermanni has said he’d like to see Wambach break the record at home, and these next three road matches (including June 2 at Canada) are a good time to set the stage.
And amidst the flurry of attacking success from players like Press and Leroux, it wouldn’t hurt for Wambach to reassert her dominance.
No one would suggest benching the reigning FIFA World Player of the Year, but Wambach will be 35 by the World Cup, and Sermanni knows he’ll have some difficult decisions to make in the future.
4. Filling the Lloyd Void
Midfielder Carli Lloyd’s broken shoulder, which she suffered at the Algarve Cup, means a spot is up for grabs in midfield.
Megan Rapinoe should be a mainstay on the outside, and a strong case could be made for her as the team’s best player. She was the Algarve Cup MVP despite missing the final with an injury, and the Olympique Lyonnais star scored last week as her club keeps steamrolling toward a third straight UEFA Women’s Champions League title.
Shannon Boxx also figures as the backbone of the midfield, while the other two spots likely come down to Heather O’Reilly, Tobin Heath, Yael Averbuch and Lauren Cheney, with Press and Leroux also options.
Of that group, Heath is the one to watch. Perhaps the most skilled player on the team with the ball, the Paris Saint-Germain midfielder would become a true force by translating her one-on-one ability into more consistent goals and assists. If she can make that leap in the run-up to 2015, the U.S. attack gets even tougher to deal with.
5. Strong at the back?
Often cited as the team’s Achilles’ heel, the U.S. defense has had a good start to the year: three goals allowed in six matches, and only one during four games in Portugal.
But those tests came in front of big, supportive crowds in the U.S. and in a church-like atmosphere at the Algarve Cup. Two weeks ago, a report surfaced that 10,000 tickets had been sold for the match in Germany (along with a great German poster hyping up Hope Solo — oops), meaning this will be a decidedly different atmosphere.
Christie Rampone, Becky Sauerbrunn, Ali Krieger, Rachel Buehler and Kelley O’Hara give Sermanni veteran options, and sprinkling in the aforementioned upstarts like Dunn, Engen and Johnston would provide solid learning opportunities.
Here’s a look at the roster, followed by a Starting XI prediction:
USWNT Roster – Friendlies vs. Germany (April 5) and the Netherlands (April 9)
Goalkeepers: Nicole Barnhart, Adrianna Franch, Ashlyn Harris
Defenders: Rachel Buehler, Crystal Dunn, Whitney Engen, Julie Johnston, Meghan Klingenberg, Ali Krieger, Kelley O’Hara, Christie Rampone, Becky Sauerbrunn
Midfielders: Yael Averbuch, Shannon Boxx, Lauren Cheney, Tobin Heath, Kristie Mewis, Heather O’Reilly, Megan Rapinoe
Forwards: Sydney Leroux, Alex Morgan, Christen Press, Abby Wambach
Projected Starting XI:
What do you think? Can Wambach can put up four or five goals in these two matches? Nervous about the goalkeeping? Any youngsters you hope to see on the field? What’s your preferred Starting XI?
Share your thoughts below.