The United States finally kicks off their 2015 Women's World Cup campaign tonight against Australia in Winnipeg. After four years of rueing their penalty kick loss in the last World Cup final and wondering "what if?", the Americans get to go to work on putting those memories behind them in their quest for a record-setting third Women's World Cup title.
Of course, this being a World Cup, it's not going to be easy. The U.S. has been struggling for the better part of a year and go into their opener with star striker Alex Morgan's health in question after she missed the last two months with an injured knee.
There is also the matter of getting dropped into Group D with fellow title contender Sweden, 10th ranked Australia and the best team from Africa, Nigeria. And because that wasn't enough, the U.S. really needs to win their group because the path through the top half of the bracket will be miles easier than the path through the bottom half, where they would end up if they finish second in Group D.
Making sure they top the group starts against Australia. They're not a world power by any means. Not only are they not, but they're not even in that next group of longshots. They are still a good team, though, and a team the U.S. needs to take all three points off of.
What are going to be the keys to the match?
Who starts up top?
Abby Wambach isn't going to start every World Cup match. She's older and couldn't handle that type of wear, especially with it now taking seven matches to win the tournament. But she's going to start the opener. The question is who partners her.
Normally, Morgan would be the go-to choice, but she only trained fully for first time on Saturday so there is no way she is fit enough to start. That leaves Sydney Leroux, Amy Rodriguez and Christen Press as Jill Ellis' options.
Odds are that Ellis will turn to Leroux. That's who she started in the last two friendlies before the World Cup and she played very well in one of them. Leroux has had a rough last couple years as her touch and finishing failed her. There has never been a doubt that she's a phenomenal athlete, but the rest of her game needed work. It's come along a bit in the last few months and the U.S. will need her to be good against Australia.
The U.S. has abandoned any sort of change that would have seen them build a more technical side that leans on their midfield to dictate matches and spur the attack. They're back to relying on strength and speed. Wambach gives them the former, but her partner will have to provide the latter.
Can they control Lisa De Vanna?
Australia are extraordinarily reliant on striker Lisa De Vanna. She can be scintillating and look as good as any forward in the world, but she can also disappear. That's partly on her, but as much a product of a team that has put entirely too much pressure on their star striker. The Aussies' first option is De Vanna, and so is their second, third and fourth. That means she is always surrounded by defenders and teams don't have to worry about much else.
The U.S. will likely turn to Becky Sauerbrunn and Julie Johnston in the center of defense. The Americans know what they're going to get from Sauerbrunn, but Johnston is just 23 years old and playing in her first major tournament. Johnston is undoubtedly talented and in great form at the moment, but it remains to be seen how she handles the pressure of her first World Cup match.
Because the U.S. doesn't use a defensive midfielder, Sauerbrunn and Johnston are only going to get so much help from the players in front of them. That means it's on them to keep De Vanna in check. If they do, all will be well.
Will Carli Lloyd do everything?
There has been a fair bit of complaining about what the U.S. has become under Ellis. Players are often played out of position and the system doesn't seem to best compliment the players on the pitch. And yet it works ... kind of. That's because of Carli Lloyd.
Lloyd has emerged as the best player on the team. She's a do-everything midfielder, transitioning play, tracking back, playing outside or in the middle and, of course, scoring goals. She has almost single-handedly kept the team and their bizarre style of play intact and functioning.
Now the World Cup is upon us. A lot about the U.S. team still doesn't make sense, but if it's going to work, it's going to work because of their best player -- Carli Lloyd. She'll have to do it all, and the good news is that she can.