Absence of key veterans puts focus on youngsters
The United States women's national team begins most years in China, home each January to the Four Nations Tournament. It's the return trip scheduled in September for the 2007 World Cup that makes this year's opening excursion feel slightly unusual.
"It definitely feels different, because this isn't going to be our only trip to China," veteran defender Cat Whitehill said before the United States departed on Tuesday for the city of Guangzhou and its opening game against Germany on Jan. 26.
Guangzhou is the same city that hosted the final of the inaugural Women's World Cup in 1991 and saw the United States beat Norway 2-1 to claim the first championship. And it's with the goal of ultimately duplicating that feat, thereby erasing the lingering sting of losing the World Cup title on home soil in a semifinal loss to Germany in Portland in 2003, that United States coach Greg Ryan takes a young roster across the Pacific for the Four Nations.
Forwards Abby Wambach and Kristine Lilly, who combined to score 30 of the 57 goals the United States scored in 22 matches last year, won't make the trip while getting some well-deserved rest. Neither will veterans Aly Wagner and Christie Rampone, regular starters with more than 100 caps each, or midfielder Shannon Boxx, still recuperating from knee and hip injuries suffered early last year. In their place will be a collection of young holdovers looking to move up in the pecking order and even younger newcomers looking to add their names to that order.
"For the players that are going, for the young players that were involved with us and helped us last year, this is a chance for them to stand up on their own without being supported by Lilly, Abby, Christie Rampone, Aly Wagner and Shannon Boxx, who still isn't back from her injury," Ryan said. "I think sometimes when you remove those players, you give the younger guys an opportunity to really step up, because they're going to have to carry the game or things aren't going to go as well in China."
Among the most important auditions taking place in games against Germany, England and China -- all World Cup qualifiers -- will be up front and in the midfield.
Wambach and Lilly are locked in as two of the three forwards in Ryan's preferred 4-3-3 formation, but much of last year was spent searching for the right fit alongside them. Heather O'Reilly entered 2006 as the most likely candidate but her commitments to the University of North Carolina, which she led to a national championship, opened the door for former college teammate Lindsay Tarpley and rising star Natasha Kai.
O'Reilly is back, but she is starting from closer to scratch than she might have hoped.
"The way I look at Heather right now, is Heather has to earn a spot back in this team," Ryan said. "Right now, she's got a couple of players in front of her. Now when we go to China, because Abby and Lilly aren't there, she has a chance to earn a place back in the starting lineup. ... I think it's clear that Abby and Lilly are our two key players in the front line, and really, we're looking for that third player right now. We feel good about the young players we have in, but it's going to be up to them to shine and prove to us that they can play alongside Abby and Lilly on a regular basis."
Also under the spotlight in the Four Nations is the midfield, a source of concern for Ryan after last year.
"We've just got to get more goal production out of our midfielders," Ryan said of a group that produced just six goals last year (only one more than center back Whitehill scored by herself). "I think once you add Shannon Boxx back into the mix, that number is going to go up, because Shannon is a very good goal scorer from the midfield. But at the same time, that's one of the things we're going to work on, probably as much as any other aspect of our team this year."
Boxx didn't make this trip to China, but after undergoing light workouts as a non-roster player at the team's first training camp at the Home Depot Center outside of Los Angeles last week, she looks like a good bet to be back in the lineup for the World Cup.
"As a defender, I miss seeing her in front of me," Whitehill said. "It will be exciting for her to get back and get back into the swing of things. She's an incredible defensive mid; I never really have to worry about the ball getting to me that much because of who she is as a player."
Even without making an appearance at the Four Nations, Boxx could have an impact on the midfield's development. With her return looking more and more certain, Ryan may experiment with Leslie Osborne as an attacking midfielder. A surprise star after stepping in for Boxx as a defensive midfielder last year, Osborne could help jump-start the attack.
"We're going to look at Leslie moving up a spot, playing an attacking midfield role, and we'll be doing that some in China if we get the opportunity, so that we can find out if that's really a viable option for us," Ryan said. "Leslie has done well everywhere we've put her so far, so I'm pretty confident that can happen."
The wild cards in the equation are midfielder Yael Averbuch and forwards Lauren Cheney and Casey Nogueira, newcomers awaiting their first caps who made the final 20-player roster for the Four Nations. All have college eligibility remaining.
"I knew I'd be happy with the veteran players, because they're good and solid and you can count on them," Ryan said of training camp. "But I'm very happy, and surprised, with the talent level of some of the younger players. I went from thinking going into this camp, 'OK, we may not find anybody that can help us down the road,' to feeling like we might have found a few players that could really help this team."
The United States plays Germany on Jan. 26, England on Jan. 28 and China on Jan. 30.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's soccer coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.