The road to the World Cup in China next summer is assuredly long and winding, but it's starting to take on looking-glass dimensions as the United States prepares to face the host nation for the third time this year on a third continent.
After a spotless July that included wins against Sweden, Ireland and Canada, the United States hopes to remain nearly perfect under coach Greg Ryan (17-0-4 since taking over at last year's Algarve Cup, with a 9-0-3 mark this year that includes a 4-3 shootout loss against Germany in the Algarve final) as they make the first ever appearance for any U.S. national team at Toyota Park in Chicago (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, ESPN2).
As familiar as Ryan and his team are with China after two games this year and one of the longest-running rivalries in the women's game (China was even the opponent when Kristine Lilly and Mia Hamm debuted in 1986), the "Steel Roses" remain something of an enigma on the current world scene. Whereas the progress of America's European rivals is easy to measure, it's more difficult to gauge the status of a team that once was regarded as the sport's rising power and that provided the foil in the game by which all games are measured for the U.S. women.
Still looking to ease memories of a disappointing quarterfinal exit in the 2003 World Cup and a 2004 Olympic experience that included an embarrassing 8-0 loss to Germany, China enters Sunday's game far removed from 1999 but nevertheless with some positive momentum.
With only pride on the line in last month's Asian Cup, a tournament that settled World Cup bids for the other participants (the Chinese already being assured a spot as hosts), China ended North Korea's recent domination of the event by winning for the first time since 1999. After a controversial 1-0 semifinal win against North Korea, one that resulted in the suspension of several North Korean players and claims from their camp of corruption involving the officials, China rallied from a 2-0 halftime deficit to tie Australia in the second half of the final before eventually winning on penalty kicks.
The offensive outburst in the second half against Australia had to be a welcome sight for a team that, in addition to losing 1-0 to Japan in group play, had managed relatively weak 2-0 wins against Vietnam and Chinese Taipei (by contrast, Japan posted a combined 16 goals against those two teams before falling to North Korea in the third-place game and missing out on a World Cup bid).
Despite its continued reputation for a dynamic and fluid passing attack, China has struggled all year to score goals. Coming off the win in the Asian Cup, the team managed just a pair of scoreless draws on Aug. 19 and Aug. 22 against a Canadian team that was without the likes of Christine Latham, Sophie Schmidt, Sharolta Nonen and Charmaine Hooper.
With legendary Sun Wen now apparently back in retirement (she's definitely not with the team on this tour, and the China Daily News reported she indicated at the Asian Cup that she would retire again), strikers Ma Xiaoxu and Han Duan have had their moments (each scored in regulation against Australia and converted penalty kicks in the shootout) but haven't been able to generate goals consistently.
The United States has contributed to China's offensive woes this year, holding the Chinese scoreless in a 2-0 win Jan. 22 in Guangzhou, China, and a 0-0 draw March 9 at the Algarve Cup in Portugal. And based on reports of China's time-wasting tactics late in the latter game -- eventually resulting in a yellow card on a throw-in -- the Chinese might have been more concerned with avoiding a second loss than with earning a win. And although a point wasn't an entirely unreasonable aim in the first game of group play with games against France and Denmark to follow, it's not what one might have expected if a team felt it was still on equal footing with the United States.
Overall, the United States is 15-8-11 against China, including a 5-2-2 record in this country.
But despite all China's recent struggles, Sunday's game still probably represents the best test Ryan's team will have before playing for a spot in the World Cup in the CONCACAF Gold Cup this November (the U.S. also is scheduled to play Mexico on Sept. 13, Chinese Taipei on Oct. 1 and Iceland on Oct. 8). China might be ranked only eighth in the world at the moment, but as Ryan noted before the game against Canada, his program no longer has the luxury of taking any games for granted.
"The world has changed," Ryan said. "We're focused on winning each match, and if we can dominate a team we'll attempt to dominate, only in order to win. The days of playing against other countries that didn't have the talent base, coaching and resources that we have are over. It's a lot tougher now; that environment has changed. We're not trying to get that back because that's never going to come back. We're just trying to win each match as we play them."
For the U.S., the game marks the return of Lilly, who sat out the games against Ireland and Canada with previous commitments. The most-capped soccer player in U.S. history, Lilly is responsible for six of the team's 28 goals this year and scored both goals in the win against China in January.
Sunday also marks the unofficial start of Heather O'Reilly's pingpong soccer existence this fall. O'Reilly, who has started 10 of 12 games this year for Ryan, has been training with North Carolina since the middle of August in preparation for her senior season but rejoins the national team for what promises to be her 50th career cap. An important part of Ryan's plans, O'Reilly will continue to bounce back and forth between the college season and the run-up to World Cup qualifying as the fall progresses. Likely to carry an even greater scoring burden for the Tar Heels than she did while leading the team with 18 goals last season, it will be interesting to track how she adjusts to once again having finishers like Lilly and Abby Wambach up front.
But the focus of attention for the United States likely will continue to be in the midfield, where the team still is looking to find the right combination of players with Shannon Boxx out for the rest of the year after tearing her ACL. Marci Miller earned her first start of the year against Canada, but she'll miss Sunday's game after injuring her knee in training.
With Miller out and Ryan perhaps still sorting out what options he had, the only two new faces from July's games will both be midfielders: Angela Hucles and Joanna Lohman. A veteran with 52 caps and a relative newcomer with just four appearances for the national team, respectively, Hucles and Lohman represent opposite ends of the search spectrum.
Already established as an option, Leslie Osborne was a bright spot in July's three games, stepping in after Boxx's injury and acquitting herself well in logging 225 of the 324 minutes she has played this year. Against Canada, Osborne was named Woman of the Match. In the coming weeks, she and Carli Lloyd, who started against Sweden and Ireland and played well after coming on in the second half against Canada, will be looking for an opportunity to solidify their standing in the first 11.
One sidenote worth tracking will be whether Natasha Kai is able to continue her remarkable strike rate as she settles in with the national team. Although still looking for her first start after eight caps, Kai is third on the team with five goals this year, trailing only Wambach and Lilly. She scored after coming on as a substitute against Ireland and Canada.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's soccer coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com