The U.S. Women will take on Germany in the first of a pair of friendlies on Saturday at Toyota Park in Chicago (6:30 ET, Fox Soccer). The match marks the first time the top two ranked teams in the world will face off in more than two years. It was way back in May of 2010 when the two last met, with the U.S. trouncing the Germans 4-0 in Cleveland, a game otherwise known as "The Last Time the USWNT Looked Truly Confident and Dominating." Since then, well, there was that whole almost not qualifying for the World Cup episode and more than a few performances that span a distance from Olympic Gold to last-gasp miracles to field goals don't win World Cups to a little shaky to disappointing and sad to "what the heck happened to that team that beat Germany 4-0 in Cleveland!?".
In the 2011 World Cup, host country, favorite and twice-reigning champion Germany saw its three-peat dreams come crashing down 108 minutes into the quarterfinal against Japan. The U.S. heart-attacked its way all the way to the final, but that dream too died at the feet of the Japanese, sailing into goalposts and over crossbars all the way to second place. The U.S. found some redemption in Olympic gold a year later, the Germans didn't even qualify for the games, because UEFA's brilliant Olympic Qualifying is let's just to take the two best-finishing European teams from the World Cup and send them to London.
And so, this Saturday at Toyota Park, The World Cup-slash-Olympic Final That Never Actually Happened Because, Hey, Japan, Where Did You Come From?, Part I, will be played.
Expect the U.S. to look mostly the same as usual, because it's the USWNT, and because with the post-Pia Sundhage era officially underway, it's hard to imagine interim head coach Jill Ellis doing anything even slightly crazy. Don't be fooled by Germany's World Cup crash and burn though, this is still the number two team in the world for a reason, and a side that will provide more of a challenge than either Costa Rica or Australia did. Against Australia in particular, there was an obvious disconnect between just about everyone, leaving the usual stars mostly invisible for long stretches. The defense was too-often burned by a quick counter-attack, the midfield unable to generate, the forwards with few good chances. Germany on the other hand, is fresh off a dominating performance in qualifiers for the 2013 Euros, and is 10-0 in 2012, outscoring opponents 48-3.
The U.S.'s defensive woes in particular could be problematic against a much more organized and experienced German side. Hope Solo will obviously be backstopping the whole thing, with Christie Rampone and Rachel Buehler in the middle and Kelley O'Hara and Amy LePeilbet on the outside. Because LePeilbet always falls somewhere between getting a tattoo and getting run over by a train on the Comfortability-at-Outside-Back scale and O'Hara is still prone to the mistakes that come with youth and inexperience, Germany should have little trouble getting service to a striker corps that includes Alexandra Popp, Anja Mittag and Celia Okoyino da Mbabi. Popp has 19 goals in 29 caps, while Okoyino da Mbabi has 35 in 70 caps. The USWNT's bizarre inability to clear balls from inside the six could make for some interesting moments, too.
The midfield will look like the midfield always does, Rapinoe and O'Reilly on the outside, Lloyd and Boxx in the middle. As the Sundhage era was nearing its end, O'Reilly was often swapped for Tobin Heath, but with a domestic unbeaten streak that stretches back to 2004 on the line, limiting things to just one midfielder who dribbles and dribbles and dribbles forever and into people who are wearing the other team's shirt is probably wise. The German midfield is a solid and bruising one, and brings a ton of experience in Simone Laudehr, Melanie Behringer, Kim Kulig, Linda Bresonik and Viola Odebrecht. The U.S. will be forced into plenty of shots from distance, expect Lloyd and O'Reilly in particular to launch a few from beyond the 18.
Offensively, Germany certainly knows of Abby Wambach by now, so expect her to be tightly marked anywhere near the goal. Same goes for Alex Morgan, and both struggled with this problem, especially in the early going, against Australia. The U.S. will have to be more creative than Rapinoe to Wambach or just relying on the speed of Morgan to find some offense. Unlike the Australia, which allowed the U.S. five unanswered goals to cap a comeback 6-2 victory, Germany brings an incredibly experienced goalkeeper in Nadine Angerer. With 109 caps, Angerer is considered one of the best goalkeepers in the world for good reason. The shakiness that plagued the Maltidas' 17-year-old keeper Brianna Davey certainly won't be an issue for the veteran Angerer.
The USWNT has a penchant for stepping up in big moments and against big teams, so the Chicago edition of U.S.-Germany should be an entertaining one. The U.S. has that aforementioned unbeaten streak on the line both sides have a little something to prove. For Germany, it's a reminder that it's still one of the world's top teams, despite the early World Cup exit and Olympic absence. For the U.S., it's moving past the Sundhage era, showing that this team still deserves that top ranking. These may be friendlies and "celebration games," but they're ones that carry a lot of weight.
The post-clapping and jumping era starts now.