Abby Wambach warms up prior to playing against Russia at FAU Stadium on Feb. 8, 2014 in Boca Raton, Florida. The United States defeated Russia 7-0.
More than 4,000 miles separate the U.S. men’s and women’s national teams in soccer yet their goals on the international stage are so similar.
The men’s team begins play in the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Natal, Brazil, with a match against Ghana Monday.
The women, meanwhile, are in Tampa, Florida, to begin their march toward the 2015 FIFA Women‘s World Cup with a new coach in charge. The United States will face France in an international friendly at 7:30 p.m. EDT Saturday night at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, then the teams will play again June 19 at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, Connecticut.
The Women’s World Cup begins in less than one year in Canada, and the United States would like to reclaim the top spot in the world. The U.S. women have won the last three Olympic gold medals, but they haven’t emerged victorious in the World Cup since the 1999 tournament hosted by the United States.
“It’s time to get ready,” U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo said. “It’s time to get focused. Hopefully, we’re really going to take that first step in building our best team possible for the World Cup next summer.”
It begins in Tampa, where Solo would tie Briana Scurry, the starting keeper on the 1999 championship team, with a shutout against France. Solo has 70 career shutouts, just one short of Scurry’s national team record.
Abby Wambach, the world’s all-time No. 1 scorer, enters the game with 167 career goals. Forward Alex Morgan is expected to be back in action for the first time since November after recovering from an ankle injury. Three-time Olympian Shannon Boxx, a midfielder, will not play in either of the France matches, but she is back in camp for the first time since April 2013 following the birth of her child.
On top of all that, Saturday’s match will mark the debut of Jill Ellis as the team’s head coach. Previously, the U.S. Soccer Director of Development, Ellis moved into the interim head coaching position in April, and then was named head coach in early May.
When she walks into Raymond James Stadium, it may not seem so dramatic because she coached the United States to a win over China on April 10 in San Diego, California, and a tie against Canada May 8 in Winnipeg, Canada. She has twice served the team as an interim head coach. And because she was director of youth development, she has not only worked with all of the new national teamers but most of the veteran players, as well. Only Wambach and defender Christie Rampone haven’t been previously directly coached by Ellis.
“Even though I’m familiar with these players, it’s maybe seeing or asking something different of them,” Ellis said. “So I think starting to layer the things that we think are important, how we want to play, that is the focus. It’s really going to be about performance.”
Ellis named a training camp roster of 26 players for the two matches against France, 25 of them coming from teams in the National Women’s Soccer League. The squad has spent the week in Tampa training under the new coaching staff led by Ellis.
“We’ve had her (Ellis) on youth teams,” said defender Becky Sauerbrunn. “She’s always been around, being the youth technical director, and everything. It feels like you know her; she knows you, and there’s a bit of comfort there.”
“Of course, having Jill Ellis and her being a part of the U.S. national soccer program for a very long time, it’s a very smooth transition,” Solo said.
While Ellis will use the two games against France to watch and evaluate her players, she won’t have an extended period of time to experiment with combinations because World Cup qualifying matches are coming up in the fall in the United States at locations still to be determined.
It is a challenge that Ellis embraced when she was named the team’s coach.
“I actually love the fact that qualifiers are right around the corner and the World Cup is next year because it does bring laser focus,” she told reporters upon her hiring in May. “I feel like I have a very good handle on the current core of players.”
One of the key players back in camp is Morgan, who had been out for seven months because of a slow-healing stress injury in her ankle. Morgan has 44 goals in 77 caps, but has not scored in more than a year.
“I just want to come out of camp knowing I raised my level a little bit more,” Morgan said. “Obviously with injuries it’s hard to lead right back where you were before. My goal is to get kind of more crisp on my finishing and my shooting and also get back into that mental and physical competitiveness and repetition.”
Among the new players on the team contending for playing time is midfielder Morgan Brian, a rising senior at the University of Virginia who won the 2013 MAC Hermann Trophy.
“My last year on the national team has been awesome,” Morgan said. “I’m so grateful for learning so much from these players.”