US Soccer women's soccer

SheBelieves preview: USWNT v. Canada

The annual SheBelieves Cup is upon us. The action gets going at 3 p.m. today with Argentina and Brazil squaring off before the evening’s headlining game between the United States and Canada.

Catch the game at 6 p.m. CST on FS1 and TUDN. You can also join AO Nashville’s virtual watch party.

The competition

Held annually in the United States, the SheBelieves Cup is a premier tournament typically consisting of some of the world’s top teams. The first three editions saw the hosts joined by France, England, and Germany, while Brazil, Japan, and Spain have been among the more recent invitees (the French and Germans have not been back since 2018, while the 2021 edition will be the first that doesn’t include England).

Typically, all four teams are in the top-10 or close to it, but there’s an exception this year. La Albiceleste replaced Japan, which withdrew for pandemic-related reasons. Argentina is also by far the worst team (No. 31 in FIFA’s rankings) ever to play in the competition, with the US standing No. 1 globally, while Brazil and Canada are tied at No. 8. Japan is No. 10 and would have kept the tournament at an elite level, while the previous low-ranking team was No. 13 – Spain last year. Novels could be written about the gender inequity in Argentina leading to the disparity in overall quality between their men’s and women’s sides. General incompetence in the federation that has seen the prime (and twilight years) of Lionel Messi completely wasted on the men’s side is a factor as well. Nonetheless: Argentina is very much the little fish in this one.

The four teams will play a round-robin, single-table group stage, and that which finishes with the highest points is your champion. Traditionally, the games are held around the U.S. This year, they’re held – like every soccer event, it would seem – in Orlando’s Exploria Stadium to minimize logistical issues of playing through a pandemic.

The SheBelieves Cup is technically a friendly competition, rather than FIFA-sanctioned competitive matches, but the teams tend to take it pretty seriously.

The Canucks

Since the US is not just the No. 1 team in the world but also Canada’s primary rival, I expect to see as close to an A-team as possible. Canada is slightly injury-decimated (and players not being released from some clubs didn’t help).

This is a Canada squad that has a wide range of experience: NWSL vets Sophie Schmidt and Desiree Scott have 199 and 156 caps, respectively. Each of them started all four games at the 2019 World Cup next to each other in central midfield – Scott was subbed out for the final 11 minutes of Canada’s group-stage loss to Netherlands, the only time either of them spent any time off the pitch. They’re also 32 and 33 years old, so likely in their final cycle with the Olympics (hopefully still) taking place this Summer.

Jessie Fleming is a more-advanced midfielder or striker, and at almost a decade younger than Schmidt is still the third-most experienced player on the roster with 77 caps (a couple shy of half Scott’s number). Without Christine Sinclair – the world’s all-time leading goal-scorer – I would expect Fleming and Janine Beckie to be up top. Beckie has played primarily as a left winger, so that’s also an option with West Ham’s Adriana Leon capable of playing up top or as a RW (at 5-4, Schmidt’s Dash teammate Nichelle Prince is more pigeonholed into being a wide player with her skillset).

Allysha Chapman and Shelina Zadorsky locked down the left pairing in defense at the World Cup, but the right side is gone. Jayde Riviere, who is just 20, got a few minutes at RB, and I assume the Michigan Wolverine is the heiress apparent at right back. RCB is an open question and I don’t watch enough CanWNT to make an educated guess here.

34-year old Stephanie Labbé is the experienced option in net with 72 caps, including the entirety of the 2019 World Cup. Sky Blue’s Kailen Sheridan has nine caps and was the Golden Glove winner at the NWSL Challenge Cup last Summer. She’s up next for Canada.

The Yanks

As with their opponents, I expect the United States to put out a best-available XI for this one. Indeed, with a front-loaded schedule, strong squads tonight and for Sunday’s game against Brazil are likely. Facing relative minnow Argentina on Tuesday… lineup strength may depend on what the table looks like by that point.

I do want to see Alex Morgan in the starting squad, since getting back to form after a pregnancy and then a respiratory illness may be a bit of an extended process. Seeing her at full strength by the Olympics (or having enough data to say she won’t be back to 100% in time) is the priority. Giving her the first game and then adjusting as necessary from there should maximize the time she can play in an abbreviated tournament.

How Vlatko Andonovski handles some of his even-more-veteran players will be an interesting situation to watch. Carli Lloyd is probably in the best-available lineup for this team. She’s also 38 years old so might not be able to go three games in six days at a high competitive level. Same with Becky Sauerbrunn and Megan Rapinoe (both 35). Lloyd, Morgan, and Rapinoe fortunately have a pretty significant amount of overlap in their abilities, so some rotation there is good. Sauerbrunn’s CB position is not as taxing from a cardiovascular perspective, which could allow her minutes to be stretched a bit more.

What I’m interested in most – but perhaps not for the Canada contest – is seeing who is largely unproven but ready to step up by the time the Olympics roll around. Whether that’s the only college player, Florida State’s Jaelin Howell (an injury replacement for Sam Mewis), or perhaps Christie Mewis who famously went seven years between WNT goals but is somehow still only 29, I want to not only keep the stars a little more fresh, but also see who else will be ready to show out at the Olympics.

With Canada less than 100%, there’s probably an opportunity to be heavier on the rotation in this one, with an eye toward peak performance against Brazil.

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