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Three things to watch for at SheBelieves

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The USWNT is back in action with SheBelieves. Here’s a few items to ponder before the tournament begins.

Soccer: International Friendly Women's Soccer-Switzerland at USA Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

On Wednesday, the United States Women’s National Team will play its first competitive matches of 2017 when it kicks off the SheBelieves Cup against Germany.

The US enters the tournament as defending champions, having won all three games in the inaugural edition of the cup. But unlike last year—where the tournament was fully in the shadow of the summer Olympics—this time around there are no other big ticket events on the calendar, with the next major international event still over two years away.

Which raises the question: what are the goals for the team over the next week? Is the priority to build toward the 2019 World Cup or to win this tournament? Obviously, they’d like to do both, but at least in some respects those goals will come into conflict. It’s worth taking a moment, then, to assess the state of the team and to think about what would realistically count as a success.

Winning would be nice, but it’s not the top priority

Last year, they swept the competition, but each match was close and could easily have gone the other direction. Since then, the US has looked shaky at times, getting outplayed by Japan last June, before crashing out of the Olympics against Sweden, and then undertaking a modest rebuilding campaign last fall.

Given those facts, it would be foolish to count on a repeat performance. Nine points is certainly possible, but it certainly shouldn’t be the measure of success. More broadly, while it would be nice if they win the tournament, it wouldn’t be a crisis if they don’t.

Germany, France, and England are all tremendously talented teams in the middle of Euro 2017 preparation and any one of them could be a plausible late elimination round opponent at the next World Cup. Beating them today would be nice, but the real priority is beating them in two years. And taking that goal seriously may require a willingness to sacrifice immediate objectives in the service of experimentation.

US Soccer certainly cares a great deal about the product it puts on the field—and a big part of that brand is the regularity of victories. But Coach Jill Ellis has presumably earned a lot of good will with a World Cup victory in 2015 and the extended unbeaten run that followed it. Even with a disappointing Olympics, her position seems safe. That should give her the freedom to test out options without fear of a few bad results putting her job into peril.

The US has a lot of big tactical questions that need answering

That freedom will be important, because the US has a lot of work to do. Player for player, their squad is arguably the best in the world. Even with the retirement and phasing out of some impressive names, the US remains stacked in every position, with plenty of young players and NWSL stalwarts ready to fill any gaps. However, in a number of games over the past 12 months, those individual pieces have added up to less than the sum of their parts.

One problem—made apparent against Sweden in the Olympics—is a difficulty breaking down a deep-lying defense. This is by no means a unique problem for the United States. All teams struggles to break down organized and resolute opposition; that’s why this approach is so often used. But even in this relative sense, the US seemed bereft of ideas last summer. That’s a function of a larger problem in the US tactical setup: their general weakness in possession in the central midfield.

As often discussed last year, Ellis’s preferred setup for most of 2016 was to overload the flanks, using attacking fullbacks to supplement wingers and wide strikers. Where this approach faltered was in the center of the pitch—often leaving huge gaps between two holding players and a single advanced central midfielder. Evidence of this was on display at SheBelieves last year, where several opponents (most notably France) outplayed the US in the midfield, and were unlucky to not earn anything from the tie.

In many ways, this problem suggests that the biggest loss for the US over the past two years was the retirement of Lauren Holiday, who stabilized play in precisely this blank space, and whose absence Ellis has never quite figured out how to remedy.

This, then, is one of the key questions going forward. Theoretically, the US has the players to construct a robust midfield capable of matching up with anyone in the world. But evidence to date suggests that Ellis is not committed to this solution. She failed to include Tori Huster (a true #6) in the 23, and has yet to give a cap to players like Danielle Colaprico or Vanessa DiBernardo who could play a useful role in a more centrally-oriented tactical setup. Instead, she spent the fall matches experimenting with a 3-back setup that was designed to push as many attackers as possible as far up the pitch as possible, in the hopes of pinning the opposition back and orchestrating attacks via the counterpress. Against weak opposition, there is virtue to this approach, but it verges on suicidal against teams like Germany, France, and England, who possess pinpoint passers capable of slicing through the counterpress and exposing the weak defensive backline.

If Ellis remains committed to the three-back experiment, as seems apparent, then it still remains to be seen how she reorganizes the setup to address the capabilities of a top-level opponent.

A big chance for some new faces

The 23-woman roster for SheBelieves includes three players yet to receive their first cap: Rose Lavelle (selected #1 in last month’s NWSL draft by the Boston Breakers), Jane Campbell (selected #15 in the draft by the Houston Dash), and 16 year old Brianna Pinto. The prospect of a first national team appearance against one of the world’s best teams is a true case of trial by fire. While all three have performed in plenty of high pressure environments before (and Lavelle and Campbell have been in numerous national team camps), it will certainly be worth watching how they adapt to these circumstances.

The team also features several relatively new names, who earned a few caps in the post-Olympics reshuffle, but have yet to play a top opponent. This includes the NC Courage striking pair of Lynn Williams and Jess McDonald, as well as the Chicago Red Stars’ fullback Casey Short.

Finally, the team will also be playing its first tournament matches in the post-Hope Solo era. While both Alyssa Naeher and Ashlyn Harris have spent the better part of the last decade with the team, together they possess a mere 21 caps. SheBelieves will therefore be the first big test to assess who will be the preferred #1 for the next cycle.