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U.S. Women start their Algarve Cup defense on Wednesday

Mar 5, 2014, 2:16 AM EDT

Abby Wambach, USWNT Getty Images

The U.S. Women’s National Team’s annual foray into the Algarve Cup starts on Wednesday when the world’s No. 1-ranked team taking on 2011 World Cup winners Japan. Also grouped with Sweden and Denmark, the U.S. is guaranteed to get three strong games during their trip to Portugal, with a potential meeting with Germany in the championship match making this the most competitive point on the team’s 2014 calendar. While the team’s return to a series of domestic, mostly non-competitive friendlies will occupy the summer, providing tepid preparation for October’s World Cup qualifying tournament in Mexico, March’s chance to claim a 10th Algarve Cup will define where they rank against the rest of the world.

If the U.S. can beat Japan (ranked third) and Germany (second) while avoiding a slip in its reunion match with former coach Pia Sundhage and Sweden (or against Denmark), the team can cruise through the rest of the year assuming it remains the best in the world. Fall to Japan or Germany, and 2014 becomes about seeing the World Cup from a challenger’s role, knowing that the last time the team faced another of Canada 2015’s favorites they came up short.

To this point, Tom Sermanni (the person who replaced Sundhage in Jan. 2013) hasn’t had any such setbacks. Last year, the U.S. beat Germany 2-0 in the Algarve Cup final, affirming their place at the top of the world’s soccer hierarchy. This year, they’re favored to do the same, but an inability to snare first place will cast the run  to next year’s World Cup in an entirely different perspective.

Format: 12 teams are divided into three, four-team groups to play a round-robin format over the tournament’s first week. The competition’s final round will see winners of Groups A and B (compromised of the tournament’s top eight team) face off in the final, with runners up going into the third place match. Third place finishers compete for fifth, while the groups’ last place teams will face teams from Group C.

The competition: The reigning Olympic champions face fellow London finalists Japan in Wednesday’s opening match, with games against Sweden and Denmark following on Friday and Monday.  Next Thursday, the U.S. will face their final round opponent, with pre-tournament expectations casting European champions Germany against the Americans in the first place match.

source: Getty ImagesWhich players are there: FIFA Player of the Year finalist Abby Wambach is, as are Sydney Leroux, Megan Rapinoe, Carli Lloyd, captain Christie Rampone, and this little known goalkeeper: Hope Solo (she’s supposed to be very good). NWSL stalwarts Ali Krieger, Becky Sauerbrunn, Rachel Buehler Van Hollebeke, and Heather O’Reilly are in the team, as is Christen Press, whose three goals in 2014 lead the team.

Morgan Brian, Sarah Killion, and Samantha Mewis make up the college contingent, while Whitney Engen, Meghan Klingenberg, Tobin Heath, and Sarah Hagen are all European-based stars (with the first three bound for the NWSL later this year).

Also in the squad: Alyssa Naeher, Jill Loyden, Stephanie Cox, Kristie Mewis, Kelley O’Hara, and Amy Rodriguez.

Which players are missing: Lauren Holiday, the NWSL Most Valuable Player in 2013, was excused from the tournament for personal reasons, while Alex Morgan continues to recover from an ankle injury that has kept her out thus far in 2014

Outlook: Any doubt the 2011 World Cup cast on the U.S.’s status as the world’s best team is a distant memory. Ahead of Wednesday’s kickoff against Japan, Sermanni’s group is riding a 42-match unbeaten streak. But that last loss came to Japan in this tournament two years ago. If the U.S. needs a reminder of how fragile their hegemony can be, that 1-0 defeat in Mar. 5, 2012 could serve as motivation.

Even if the U.S. lost to Japan (or Germany), it wouldn’t be the end of the world. The Algarve Cup is a very particular kind of beast, forcing teams to play four games in eight days. Even though pride is on the line (and any loss will inject doubt), this isn’t the World Cup. This isn’t the Olympics. How the team builds towards those events is more important than where it end up Mar. 12.