Margaret Purce attacks the ball during the second half against the Costa Rica women's national soccer team on Nov. 10,2019 in Jacksonville, Fla..
When the U.S. women's national soccer team partakes in Thanksgiving dinner together in a foreign country for the first time in almost three decades on Thursday, the players will be grateful like many Americans.
They will have one extra reason to be thankful.
For the first time in 261 days, the two-time defending FIFA Women's World Cup champions will get an opportunity to play a game, against the Netherlands in Breda on Friday.
“It's huge,” said goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher, who backstopped the USWNT to the 2019 World Cup championship. “We haven't had a ton of time with a new coaching staff after the World Cup and the mix of players, veteran players, younger players and just trying to learn each other and continue to evolve as a team. To be able to get together now going into 2021, the Olympics are going to come quickly. There's not going to be a lot of opportunities to get together between now and July. So, you know we have to be able to take advantage of every opportunity.”
In the age of COVID-19, every training camp and game must be considered precious because schedules can change so quickly. The window for head coach Vlatko Andonovski to select an 18-woman roster (down from 23 players in the World Cup) for the Olympic Games in Tokyo (July 21 to Aug. 6) will be a tight one.
Andonovski probably will want to make his final roster decision in the spring, so the team can bond together. He said that he will assess everything, from the Olympic qualifying tournament, National Women's Soccer League performances, camps and friendlies.
“Making decisions is very challenging,” he said in a recent video conference call with the media. “There's so many things that go into it, and they're just so many pieces of the puzzle that we're trying to put together.
“It's challenging maybe and frustrating for the players because I'm sure there are young players who feel like they didn't have enough time to showcase their abilities. I hope that everything is going go back to normal or whatever the new normal is, and we're going be able to see some of those players in more meaningful games and in more meaningful practices.”
The last time the team played was in the 2020 SheBelieves Cup final, a 3-1 win over Japan on March 11, only days prior to the pandemic shutting down international soccer for months.
“It's been a difficult year for us all together, but it's nice to have some players that are already in we call it game shape,” Andonovski said.
Those players have performed in the NWSL Challenge Cup and its Fall Series, while others, such as Sam Mewis and Rose Lavelle (both Manchester City), forwards Tobin Heath and Christen Press (both Manchester United) and Alex Morgan (Tottenham). They have gone overseas to keep up their level at a high standard in the FA Women's Super League in England.
If she plays, all eyes will be on Morgan, who hasn't performed for the USWNT since the 2019 World Cup final on July 7, 2019. That will be 510 days ago this Friday.
Morgan took time off for the birth of her daughter, Charlie Elena Carrasco, who entered the world on May 7.
The 31-year-old striker is rounding into form, slowly but surely. She has yet to go a full 90 minutes for Tottenham.
Morgan is an important part of the team's success the past decade, having tallied 107 times in 169 appearances, including six goals at France 2019.
“Alex hasn't played a lot of minutes,” Andonovski said, noting she had played only 23 minutes and then 45 minutes in two recent matches. “Not significant minutes but are great minutes from where she's at right now. We're hopeful that she's going to be able to build on from these minutes. We're not looking as much into her performance as we're looking more of her getting quality minutes, because I know the quality that Alex has.”
With this team, sometimes the players who are not attending camp make as much news, if not more, than the ones who are. Two Golden Ball winners who helped the USA win the last two World Cups — forward Carli Lloyd (2015) and midfielder Megan Rapinoe (2019) — are not in camp.
Lloyd has undergone an operation and Rapinoe is out of form, having opted out of the NWSL Challenge Cup and Fall Series. Andonovski said that both players are still in the mix for Tokyo.
“I'm actually excited about where they're at,” he said, adding that he has spoken to both players. “I don't think that either one of them and in particular, Pinoe, moved on.”
Andonovski said that Lloyd and Rapinoe would attend the January camp in the U.S.
“Looking forward for the challenges in front of them and the Olympics,” he added.
In case you were wondering, the first time the USWNT celebrated Thanksgiving away from home was on Thursday, Nov. 28, 1991, a day after the Americans bested Germany in the very first Women's World Cup semifinals, 5-2, in Guangzhou, China behind Carin (Jennings) Gabarra's hat-trick and April Heinrichs' brace. That was two days before they edged Norway, 2-1, on Michelle Akers' dramatic late goal in the final.
Friday's foe is the Netherlands, a world power on the rise, which lost to the U.S. in the 2019 championship match, 2-0. The Dutch are led by the 2017 FIFA Women’s Player of the Year, striker Lieke Martens (46 goals in 116 international games).
Given that the team hasn't played in almost nine months, that sounds like a challenge and a half, but Andonovski has welcomed that.
“There's a reason why we're wanting to play a team like the Netherlands,” he said. “They're one of the best teams in the world. I'm pretty sure that they're going to be able to expose some of our weaknesses or areas that we need to we may need to get better at or improve before the Olympics.
“They're a very good team, very organized, very disciplined team and very well coached. They have some great individuals. There's a striker that you don't want to face ... This is a time where we want to be challenged as much as possible. Regardless of the outcome, this will be a great learning opportunity for us.”
Because in the age of COVID, teams sometimes don't know the next time they will be able to get together again.