USWNT Prepares for Ireland Friendly
Just four weeks out from the World Cup in June, the US Women's National Team trained in Avaya Stadium today to prepare for a friendly match tomorrow against the Republic of Ireland in San Jose. The game will be the first of three in the final send-off series before the team heads up to Canada for the main event.
Head Coach Jill Ellis emphasized that the match wasn't simply about pleasing fans, or even about their opponent, saying "it’s not about concerning ourselves with what Ireland presents, it’s about what we need to fine-tune.”
“We’ve worked a lot on set pieces…when we look at how we score goals, the bulk of our goals come off of flank service, set pieces, or transition, so those are the three areas we’re focusing in on and we want to be the best in the world in those three areas.” The US seems well-suited to the task, with emerging aerial talents Julie Johnston and Alex Morgan joining Abby Wambach, the best header of the ball in the history of women's soccer.
Failing that, Ellis lauded the ability of key midfielders Carli Lloyd, Christen Press, and Megan Rapinoe and others to run her system: “I think we’ve got really good soccer players [in midfield] and they’ve got really good brains. I don’t want a system to be static, I want it to be fluid." The flexibility, versatility, and depth of the midfield has its tactical advantages and advantages in compensating for injuries too, with Ellis noting "the volume and how we want to play, we’re going to need the legs…what we’re asking our wide players to do is to play wide and play inside too...we’ve had such versatility from our players that I don’t think curve balls are going to disrupt what we’re doing”
Hope Solo, the mercurial but singularly talented goalkeeper, was a major talking point for players and coaches the day after her husband, Jerramy Stevens, began serving a 30-day sentence for DUI accrued while driving a US Soccer van in January. That incident led to a month-long suspension from the team for Solo, which came just as domestic violence charges against her were dropped. Ellis was full of praise for how Solo has responded to the tumult in her life, saying “She has so much clarity right now, she’s sharp. This is as sharp as I’ve seen [her]," adding "Sometimes in life pausing and reflecting is a good thing."
Veteran Abby Wambach agreed, saying “the way I’d describe Hope right now is that she has clear eyes. In years past, she walks into a room and her eyes are looking down. Now when she walks into a room, she’s engaging with people, she’s looking people in the eye, and this is as focused and sincere as I’ve seen her ever.”
“If they have walked outside the lines of what is acceptable from a team’s perspective, from a US soccer perspective, you either get to decide whether you are going to make changes or not, and Hope decided to make changes in her life”
“To see what she can now do with clear eyes and an open heart, I think she’s going to light the world on fire this summer”
Solo herself attributed the focused attitude to the power of the prospect of a World Cup trophy. “It's the World Cup. I’ve had my eyes on this World Cup since I was a little girl...I’ve never lost sight of how much I love playing for the US, being a goalkeeper, playing soccer.”
“It’s been a really tough year in my life, but with that being said, I feel like I’m in the best place in my life. I’m happy that there has been a turnaround, and I’ve worked hard to make sure there was a turnaround before the World Cup…Jerramy is in a good place as well”
The other unwelcome storylines centered around FIFA president Sepp Blatter, who despite refusing to allow natural grass surfaces for the women's World Cup, described himself as the "godfather" of women's soccer. Wambach wasn't impressed, saying “That’s a funny statement. I don’t know if much is lost in translation, but that made me laugh out loud.”
She also confirmed that FIFA had refused an offer from a grass company to donate the grass fields for free, describing it as "a slap in the face."
However, Wambach emphasized that “I dont want the focus to be on the turf, I want the focus to be on the players, the game, the wins, the ties, the crazy comebacks, whatever it is…I’m not going to talk about it when the World Cup starts because I don’t want that to be something I can excuse for any performance that we have or that I have.”
Although Wambach is now 34 years old, the former World Player of the Year feels she has quite a lot left to offer US Soccer, "The body is a little older, but the heart and mind are stronger. My leadership is a little bit more impactful.”
For the Bay Area crowd, quite a few of the players have local connections: Christen Press and Kelley O'Hara went to Stanford, Julie Johnston went to Santa Clara, and Alex Morgan went to Cal. Johnston, for one, was excited to be back on familiar turf: “Just landing in San Jose Airport had a sense of excitement...I love being here. Santa Clara feels like a second home for me.”
Johnston was on the outside looking in for the national team just 8 months ago during qualifying, but when an opportunity arose she played so well that Ellis declared that she had "locked up" a starting position. Aside from hard work and personal reflection, she credited defending Wambach in training for helping develop her aerial game: “I learn from Abby in the air more than anyone…the best part is she allows me to use her as my learning tool for how the best player in the world uses her body in the air.”
Unforunately, stars Tobin Heath and Alex Morgan are recuperating for injury and will miss the Ireland match, but Jeff Carlisle from ESPN has reported they are both on track to be ready for the World Cup.
The match will kick off at 11:30am in Avaya Stadium in San Jose, and tickets are already sold out on the primary market. The US opponent, the Republic of Ireland, is ranked 31st in FIFA's world rankings, whereas the Stars and Stripes are 2nd.