The U.S. Women's National Team will close out 2012 and the Fan Tribute Tour with three matches against China, starting on Saturday at Ford Field in Detroit before heading to Houston on December 12th and finishing up on December 15th in Boca Raton, Florida. The two teams last met in May, when the U.S. topped China 4-1 at PPL Park in Chester, Pennsylvania, on the strength of an Alex Morgan brace, a goal from Abby Wambach and a China own goal.
The U.S. has been rolling through this tour, the only real challenge coming in a pair of matches against Germany that both ended in draws. The rest of the opposition - Costa Rica, Australia and the Republic of Ireland - has been made up of teams well into the double-digits of the FIFA Rankings, Australia the only exception at ninth. China is no different. Currently sitting at 17th in the world, this China side is a far cry from the powerhouse sides of the late nineties. It was China that took the U.S. all the way to penalties in that famous 1999 Women's World Cup final, but it was definitely not this China, which failed to even qualify for the most recent Women's World Cup. But despite all that, the U.S.'s recent matches with China haven't always been easy exactly.
Unlike the Ireland side that the U.S. rolled over a few weeks ago, China is organized and known for playing a more technical game. In the entire of history of the two teams meeting, dating back to the first time in 1986, the U.S. has beaten China by more than two goals just five times in the 46 matches played. Before the 4-1 win in May, the U.S. topped China 2-0 in China in the 2011 Four Nations Tournament. And before that? Before that was October 6, 2010. Before that was the night Alex Morgan Time was born. On that night, also a friendly, also at PPL Park, China's Ma Jun scored in the 37th minute and the visitors kept the U.S. from doing much of anything to get back into the game. But then, in the 71st minute, Alex Morgan, still in college and the team's youngest player, entered, earing what was then just her third cap. And twelve minutes later, with the U.S. and the 2,505 people in attendance staring down the very real possibility of the end of the USWNT's since 2004-domestic unbeaten streak, Alex Morgan did what Alex Morgan now does regularly. In the 83rd minute, Morgan got on the end of an Abby Wambach header and sent the ball sailing past China keeper Zhang Yanru for the equalizer. It was Morgan's first international goal. Two years later, Morgan is a regular starter, with 38 goals in 55 appearances.
The U.S.'s relative struggles against China could very well make an appearance in these matches too. It's the end of a very long year for the USWNT, one that will finish with a total of 32 matches played, the most since the 36 played in 2008, and with the final three coming in a span of just a week. China meanwhile, is coming off three straight wins in the second preliminary round of qualifying for the 2013 EAFF Women's East Asian Cup, beating Chinese Taipei, Hong Kong and Australia to finish at the top of the group and qualify for next summer's four-team final. Most notable was the win against Australia, where the Chinese topped the Matildas 2-1 to eliminate them from the tournament in what was Tom Sermanni's last match in charge. China has qualified for every edition of the tournament since 2005 and finished as runner-up to Japan in 2010.
Beyond a history of close matches between the two sides, the U.S. comes into these games chasing a bit of history, too. The U.S. needs 14 more goals to equal the most scored in calendar year - 124 in 2008. And Abby Wambach is just ten goals shy of tying Mia Hamm's record of 158. Of course, it seems unlikely that either record will be broken before the end of 2012 and against a team that's fairly strong defensively, but stranger things have happened.
In short, don't expect the goal-fest that some of the other matches on the Tribute Tour have been. Neither keeper should be especially busy with most of the play stalling in the midfield. Of course, China could sneak something by a complacent U.S. defense, Jill Ellis could do something crazy as her time at the helm winds down, Morgan could score five goals, and Wambach could break Hamm's record, which knows? Not any of us, because unless you're at Ford Field when things kickoff at 1:30 ET, you won't be able to see this non-televised, non-streamed super-secret soccer game.