So for the second consecutive year, the U.S. Soccer Federation is staging the SheBelieves Cup, a weeklong tour featuring four of the top five teams in the world.
With low stakes and a high level of competition, the No. 1 Americans opened their 2017 campaign — and continued retooling after last year’s Olympic hiccup — by defeating No. 2 Germany, 1-0, on Wednesday before 16,318 at Talen Energy Stadium.
Earlier, third-ranked France scored on the final touch of the match, five minutes into stoppage time, to cap a late two-goal comeback and defeat No. 5 England, 2-1.
The World Cup “is the end point, so it’s now, ‘How good can we be at these pieces as we start to build?’ ” U.S. Coach Jill Ellis said. “That is why this tournament is critical for us. We don’t have a European Championship. We have three of the best teams in the world coming here. It’s the only way you can really grow. Even if you lose, you come out of the game learning something.”
Ellis continued to learn about her new players, such as 23-year-old forward Lynn Williams, who scored in the 56th minute and troubled the Olympic gold medalists with her turns and breakaway speed.
Ellis learned more about her new formation, featuring three defenders instead of four. She got another long look at Allie Long, a natural midfielder who has stepped into the heart of the backline. She saw superstar Carli Lloyd operate in a central-midfield pocket between two holding midfielders and two forwards.
“The formation suits us,” Lloyd said.
The pieces were in place, but the execution wasn’t. For the most part, the Americans looked exactly like a group that hadn’t played an official match in 3½ months.
A bland performance crackled to life early in the second half. Christen Press’s high pressure forced a giveaway. She sliced into the penalty area and smashed a 16-yard bid off the crossbar. Tobin Heath’s attempt was blocked, but Williams finished from 10 yards out for her second goal since her October debut.
“They are such a quality side,” Williams said. “Knowing I can do that, it allows me to know I belong.”
The quartet of teams will shift to the New York area for Saturday’s doubleheader at Red Bull Arena (United States-England, France-Germany) before arriving in Washington for Tuesday’s finales at RFK Stadium (United States-France, Germany-England). Ticket sales in those markets have surpassed 24,000 and 20,000, respectively.
The lull between marquee global events has allowed Ellis to introduce young players, evaluate newcomers who have prospered in the National Women’s Soccer League and explore different alignments and combinations.
Midfielder Brianna Pinto, from Durham, N.C., was born the year after the historic 1999 World Cup. She makes Mallory Pugh, last year’s breakout star at age 18, seem like an old-timer.
The NWSL was the gateway for forwards Williams and Jessica McDonald and defenders Long and Casey Short. Williams started up front against Germany, while Short and Long joined veteran Becky Sauerbrunn in the back.
Most of the regulars remain in the mix, highlighted by three attackers who have taken leave from the NWSL to play in Europe: Lloyd (Manchester City), Crystal Dunn (Chelsea) and Alex Morgan (Olympique Lyonnais).
One big name remains on the outs: Hope Solo, the controversial goalkeeper, is eligible to return from her suspension for repeated detrimental behavior, but Ellis apparently has no intention of recalling her. In Solo’s stead, making her 11th international appearance, Alyssa Naeher made a superb first-half save Wednesday and effectively managed the box. Ashlyn Harris will also see time in the tournament.
Meanwhile, the U.S. players have had to put aside the distractions of a prolonged labor dispute with the USSF, one that has raised issues of gender equity. The sides are engaged in talks but haven’t provided any recent updates.
In the first match, Jordan Nobbs’s 32nd-minute goal from distance stood up until the 80th minute, when France’s Marie-Laure Delie headed in Elodie Thomis’s cross. Then, with the referee preparing to sound the final whistle, Wendie Renard nodded in Amel Majri’s corner kick from close range.
U.S. lineup: Naeher; Sauerbrunn, Long, Short; Dunn (Pugh 58th), Mewis, Brian, Lloyd, Heath; Press (Horan 79th), Williams (Morgan 79th).