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U.S. Women begin Algarve Cup today against Iceland

Mar 6, 2013, 7:00 AM EDT

Abby Wambach AP

It won’t take long for the U.S. Women to have their first real test of the Tom Sermanni era. During their four games, the U.S. is unlikely to face a team ranked lower than 17th in the world.

That’s the nature of the Algarve Cup, a tournament that will provide the U.S. with their best competition of 2013. Starting with Iceland today at 9.a.m. Eastern, the U.S. will face the 15th, 17th (China) and sixth (Sweden) ranked teams in the world. Get through that unscathed, and the U.S. could face Germany or Japan in the tournament’s knockout round.

And of course, that match against Sweden will feature a meeting with the team’s old coach, Pia Sundhage. The women who led the U.S. to gold in Beijing and London is now coaching her home country’s national team.

For the U.S., the Algarve Cup is a huge step up in competition from the team’s winter friendlies against Scotland, but it’s one the team has dominated in recent years. The States have won seven of the last 10 tournaments, and only a group stage loss to Japan in last year’s competition prevented the team from making their 10th straight final.

But that loss, the only one the U.S. suffered in 2012, serves as an admonition. Whereas in previous years the U.S. would arrive in Portugal as heavy favorites, now they’re one of a handful of teams that could win this tournament. Both Germany (last year’s winner) and Japan would take the title, while Sweden is also capable of knocking off one of the big three.

With a few exceptions, Sermanni’s best team is in Portugal. While Hope Solo missed the trip with a wrist injury and Amys LePeilbet (knee) and Rodriguez (pregnancy) are long term absences, 10 of Sermanni’s starting XI could be filled with first choice options. Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan lead the attack, Tobin Heath and Megan Rapinoe will be featured in midfield, while captain Christie Rampone anchors the defense.

Results are always important, but the real story of this year’s tournament will be the time Sermanni gives new faces. As Christen Press showed in the first game against Scotland, the United States has a number of talents would could potentially contribute to the senior squad. Players like Press, North Carolina defender Crystal Dunn, and Liverpool Ladies’ defender Whitney Engen have opportunities to win regular roles in the team. Four games in eight days will give Sermanni a change to evaluate his full squad.

source: Getty ImagesAmong the more intriguing names in that squad are Lindsey Horan and Kristie Mewis (pictured, with Canberra United).

Horan is an 18-year-old who bypassed college to play in France. At Paris Saint-Germain she has seen early success, scoring 11 times in her 15 Division Feminine appearances. Called in for the Algarve Cup, the Golden, Colorado native is in line for her first senior national team cap.

Mewis is a 22-year-old attacking midfielder who just completed four stand-out years at Boston College. Set to begin her professional career in earnest with FC Kansas City (she spent a short time in Australia this January), Mewis has had prolonged success at U.S. U-levels as both a creator and goal scorer. Having received her first cap on Feb. 9, Mewis may be primed for a bigger role provided she can craft a niche among the team’s array attacking options.

Older players may also be looking at this year’s Cup as an opportunity to break through. Goalkeeper Jill Loyden will have a chance to cement herself as Hope Solo’s number two, while Ashlyn Harris could get her first cap. Becky Sauerbrunn is competing for a starting spot in defense, and Yael Averbuch (17 caps since 2008) will continue to get chances to reestablish herself in the squad.

The U.S. always expects to win the Algarve Cup, but with a series of new faces vying for roles in the team, this may be a rare occasion where individual performances prove more important than team results. Of course, if those individual performances contribute to wins, they’ll look all the more impressive.

Here is Sermanni’s Algarve Cup squad. Matches are available live on pay-per-view or tape delayed on FOX Soccer.

GOALKEEPERS (3): 18-Nicole Barnhart (FC Kansas City), 24-Ashlyn Harris (Washington Spirit), 21-Jill Loyden (Sky Blue FC)
DEFENDERS (7): 19-Rachel Buehler (Portland Thorns FC), 6-Crystal Dunn (UNC), 14-Whitney Engen (Liverpool, England), 11-Ali Krieger (Washington Spirit), 5-Kelley O’Hara (Sky Blue FC), 3-Christie Rampone (Sky Blue FC), 4-Becky Sauerbrunn (FC Kansas City)
MIDFIELDERS (8): 16-Yael Averbuch (Göteborg, Sweden), 7-Shannon Boxx (Chicago Red Stars), 12-Lauren Cheney (FC Kansas City), 17-Tobin Heath (PSG, France), 10-Carli Lloyd (Western New York Flash), 8-Kristie Mewis (FC Kansas City), 9-Heather O’Reilly (Boston Breakers), 15-Megan Rapinoe (Lyon, France)
FORWARDS (5): 22-Lindsey Horan (PSG, France), 2-Sydney Leroux (Boston Breakers), 13-Alex Morgan (Portland Thorns FC), 23-Christen Press (Tyresö, Sweden), 20-Abby Wambach (Western New York Flash)

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