Saturday, December 16, 2017
Sports

U.S. women's soccer team is a youth movement

TAMPA — Get ready, world, a whole new wave of Stars and Stripes is on the way.

The U.S. women's soccer team captivated the country last summer while winning the World Cup in Canada, but casual fans might need a program to match numbers to names tonight when the Americans face England in the inaugural SheBelieves Cup at Raymond James Stadium.

"Obviously this is not the same team, and (we have) a lot of new faces," U.S. coach Jill Ellis said. "Coming out of the World Cup, we knew (change) was going to happen."

Many reasons caused a major turnover from last year. There have been retirements (U.S. all-time leading scorer Abby Wambach and midfielders Lauren Holiday and Shannon Boxx), pregnancies (forwards Sydney Leroux and Amy Rodriguez) and injuries (midfielder Megan Rapinoe).

The average age of the 22 players called in for the SheBelieves Cup — a four-team round-robin tournament that also includes Germany and France and runs through March 9 — is nearly five years younger than the squad that hoisted the World Cup.

"In terms of years (of age), I try to avoid talking about that," Ellis said. "What I do say is we've lost a lot of caps (U.S. team appearances)."

Eight players on the roster are younger than 24, but the youngest might be the most intriguing prospect. Forward Mallory Pugh, a 17-year-old Colorado phenom, scored in her first match, heading home the winner in a 5-0 friendly win against Ireland on Jan. 23, becoming the sixth-youngest U.S. player to tally a goal.

"I never saw it go in the net," Pugh said. "(Forward Christen) Press served a great ball, and I just got my head to it, heard the crowd and ran right to her."

Pugh then became the youngest player named to a U.S. qualifying roster when she was chosen for last month's CONCACAF tournament. The Americans breezed through the tournament, earning a spot in this summer's Olympics, and Pugh more than held her own, starting three matches and assisting on three goals.

Not bad for a high school senior.

Pugh said he didn't think she would reach the national team as quickly as she has.

"But it was one of my goals, and it's an amazing opportunity," she said.

Defenders Crystal Dunn (23) and Emily Sonnett (22), and forward Lindsey Horan (21) contributed significantly during CONCACAF qualifying.

Seven players on the current roster have eight or fewer appearances with the team. And the youth movement will get plenty more opportunities during the next week in preparation for the Olympics.

"I've always kind of had an eye on what's coming behind," Ellis said. "I remind the players it doesn't matter what age they are, they are playing for the U.S. women's national team."

The SheBelieves Cup — which opens tonight with Germany playing France at Raymond James Stadium before the United States meets England — pits four of the top-five teams in the world rankings. The United States is No. 1, followed by Germany (2), France (3) and England (5). The doubleheader format continues with games Sunday in Nashville and March 9 in Boca Raton.

Ellis said she expects these matches against world-class teams will go along way in choosing the 18 players who will make up the Olympic roster.

"These are massive games in terms of quality of competition," she said. "So it's going to be a matter of looking at certain players and certain pieces and what we want."

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