Abby Wambach and the United States women’s national team never settle. Not for second, not for losses and certainly not for ties.
There’s only one goal, always, and that’s to be No. 1. They have held that ranking by FIFA since March 2008, winning Olympic gold medals that year and last year, but falling to Japan in the 2011 World Cup final. Good enough hasn’t been enough by their standards ever, and with the last World Cup triumph coming in 1999, eyes have long been set firmly on 2015 in Canada.
So results like the 1-1 draw with New Zealand on Oct. 30 don’t sit well with the Americans, even if it was a seemingly meaningless friendly. After a lackluster match from the U.S., New Zealand’s Hannah Wilkinson buried the equalizer in the 87th minute, a result the Americans treated as a loss.
“Ties and losses never sit well with any of us, especially for me, having missed a penalty early on in the game,” Wambach said.
Sunday presents the chance for the United States to end 2013 on a high note against archrival Brazil, and despite the disappointment surrounding the last result, there’s more history at stake at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando, Fla. (3:30 p.m. ET on NBC and online here).
Only once has the U.S. ended a year in which it played double-digit games undefeated, finishing 2006 with an 18-0-4 record (four other times they ended a year undefeated with less than 10 games played). This year’s 12-0-3 record includes a win and a draw vs. European champion Germany and a 1-1 draw against Sweden. There’s also a 76-game home unbeaten streak and 38-game overall unbeaten streak on the line.
But all of those are just numbers; Sunday is about progressing, and each team will bring a crop of young players to the match.
Marta won’t be playing for Brazil due to UEFA Champions League commitments with her Swedish club, Tyresö, which will also keep Americans Christen Press, Ali Krieger, Meghan Klingenberg and Ashlyn Harris out of the U.S.-Brazil match. Aside from regulars Cristiane and Rosana, this Brazil team features primarily players with less than 10 caps, a very different squad from that historic 2011 World Cup quarterfinal, won by the U.S. on penalties after Wambach’s 122nd minute header tied the game.
“I never overlook Brazil,” Wambach said Friday. “You never really know quite what you are going to get. Sometimes they will send a young team. Sometimes they’ll send all their stars. They train less together than our team, so it’s always a question mark, what system they are going to be playing, what personnel they are going to have – sort of their mystery makes them so good.”
The U.S. has some unknowns at the international level, too. Erika Tymrak and Amber Brooks – both 22 years old and both at Bayern Municg – as well as PSG striker Lindsey Horan, 19, have all joined camp from their European clubs with two total caps between the three of them. Horan, still eligible for the 2014 U-20 World Cup, is unlikely to see much time with the senior team this World Cup cycle with four world-class forwards in front of her on the depth chart, but Tymrak’s NWSL Rookie of the Year season in 2013 put her on the map and has given her the opportunity to prove herself internationally.
Brooks remains an X-factor. She is the only one of the three young players without a senior team appearance, but she’s a versatile talent who can play a position that coach Tom Sermanni still needs to figure out: defensive midfield. Carli Lloyd has been playing in that holding role, but she’s more dangerous getting forward into the attack (in case two consecutive Olympic gold medal-winning goals weren’t enough evidence for that). Shannon Boxx, who owned the role over the past decade, is 36 and currently pregnant.
Sermanni’s most pressing questions right now rest in the back, as noted throughout the last few weeks, and Sunday is another chance to test that. The Scotsman has tried a few different back lines over the last three games, all in October (right to left):
Vs. Australia (10/20): Crystal Dunn–Whitney Engen (Rachel Buehler, 57’)–Becky Sauerbrunn–Meghan Klingenberg
Vs. New Zealand (10/27): Ali Krieger–Rachel Buehler–Becky Sauerbrunn (Christie Rampone, 73’)–Meghan Klingenberg
Vs. New Zealand (10/30): Ali Krieger–Becky Sauerbrunn–Christie Rampone (Rachel Buehler, 46’)–Kristie Mewis
Could Stephanie Cox finally see some time after being in camp last month? She gave birth in the spring and last played for the U.S. against Brazil on April 3, 2012. FC Kansas City defender Leigh Ann Robinson was also in U.S. camp in October after earning her first cap in September, but she did not play in the last three matches.
Whoever lines up in front of (likely) Hope Solo, they know they’ll need to keep an eye on Cristiane, who has 64 goals in 85 appearances for Brazil. But also keep an eye on 22-year-old Debinha, who scored twice in a 4-0 win over Mexico at the Valais Cup in Switzerland in September and was the most dangerous player on Brazil’s young roster. Gabi Zanotti will also make plays from a withdrawn position in the No. 10 role for Brazil.