Algarve Cup to serve as a World Cup warmup
Southern Portugal seems about as far removed from China as it's possible to get, but the two locations are intertwined this month when it comes to women's soccer.
Held each March, the Algarve Cup annually brings together 12 of the best women's teams in the world. In non-Olympic and non-World Cup years, it's a tournament that offers the best in intrafederation competition, but with the World Cup in China just six months away, this year's event shapes up as a heated warm-up act.
The United States national team began its preparations for the World Cup a month ago at the Four Nations Cup in China, but the Algarve marks a shift in mind-set. Although the United States finished on top at the Four Nations, coach Greg Ryan used the event as a chemistry lab, leaving some key veterans at home to rest for the year ahead and fielding a very young roster. Winning mattered less as an absolute and more as an indication that young players were making the most of an opportunity.
That won't be the case in Portugal, where the United States will face World Cup qualifiers China and Sweden, as well as nonqualifier Finland, in Group B. Survive that and a potential final against Group A heavyweight Germany looms.
"We're going to take a very strong team over there," Ryan said at the end of the team's final training camp in California. "We'll take our strongest side over there and definitely go after each game in an effort to win the tournament."
Among the players most likely to make Ryan's final World Cup roster in September, only Kate Markgraf won't make the trip to the Algarve. The veteran defender served as captain at the Four Nations but came back with some minor injuries that shouldn't affect her long-term availability.
With all of that in mind, here are some players with something to prove in Portugal.
Lori Chalupny: Perhaps no development was more significant coming out of the Four Nations than Chalupny's appearances in the midfield.
A midfield star for Anson Dorrance at the University of North Carolina, Chalupny had progressed enough following a switch to outside back with the national team that she was a contender to start in the back line at the World Cup. But given an opportunity to move forward when Ryan shifted out of his standard 4-3-3 for a game against host China, she suddenly offered a potential solution for the lack of scoring chances created out of the midfield.
|Algarve Cup Opponents|
|Five other World Cup qualifiers join the United States in the Algarve field. All are in Group A or B, as Group C teams Iceland, Italy, Ireland and Portugal can finish no better than seventh overall.
Germany: Silvia Neid brings a top roster to this year's event as Germany looks to defend its crown (Germany beat the United States on penalty kicks in last year's final). The biggest question for the Germans is clearly in net. First-choice goalkeeper Silke Rottenberg is out with a knee injury that could conceivably keep her out of the World Cup and backup Nadine Angerer is also absent. Stephanie Ullrich and Ursula Holl will try to use the opportunity to catch Neid's eye.
Without Rottenberg, Germany probably slips from co-favorite to top challenger.
Sweden: Hanna Ljungberg won't make the trip to Portugal, depriving Sweden of the services of one of the world's best players. In light of that loss and a surprising 2-2 draw against Japan earlier this year, Sweden appears to enter the event a clear step below the Germans and Americans. Making matters worse, they were drawn into an ultra-competitive Group B with the United States, China and Finland.
Norway: Coach Bjarne Berntsen's team opened the year with a disappointing 1-0 loss against Japan in Cyprus and appears to be shaking up the roster for the Algarve. The omission of longtime midfielder Unni Lehn highlights some volatility for a team that cruised through World Cup qualifying.
China: The World Cup hosts look to rebound from a 2-0 loss against the United States in the Four Nations Cup that tempered any enthusiasm sparked by a 0-0 draw against Germany and 2-0 win against England in the same tournament. Rising star Ma Xiaoxu will miss the Algarve due to club obligations with Umea IK in Sweden.
Denmark: The Danes gets a small break after facing the United States in pool play in each of the last three Algarve events, but life won't be much easier against Germany, Norway and France in Group A. Denmark was embarrassed in last year's tournament, losing 5-0 against the United States and 4-0 against China, but is looking to show its World Cup qualification success was no fluke.
"She did very, very well in the Four Nations Cup there," Ryan said. "She has great mobility and the ability to run all over the park and open space for herself and her teammates."
Unlike at the Four Nations, Ryan will have a host of experienced midfielders available at the Algarve Cup, including mainstays Aly Wagner and Shannon Boxx, the latter making her first appearance since tearing her ACL and MCL in training last year. With so much talent around her, Chalupny could either blossom as an offensive instigator or fade into the background of a crowded picture.
Aly Wagner: Wagner will make her first appearance since sprinting off the field after the final whistle at the Gold Cup, racing to catch a flight to get married.
Nuptials aside, Wagner is in an interesting position. If she's healthy, it's hard to conceive of a midfield that doesn't include a veteran of more than 100 international appearances who led midfielders with six assists last year. But as the months pass, it's increasingly difficult to picture a midfield that doesn't include Leslie Osborne in some role.
A surprise star as Boxx's replacement as a holding midfielder last year, Osborne needs to play somewhere and Ryan has said he could envision a lineup where she would play a more attacking role. Add Carli Lloyd to the mix, and there's a group of at least six players fighting for three starting spots if Ryan sticks with the 4-3-3.
Wagner's spot seems as safe as any, but a good run in Portugal wouldn't hurt.
"We're going to go over there and continue to find out which midfield group works the best together, because we've got a tremendous number of options right now," Ryan said.
Stephanie Lopez: Ryan has three defensive stalwarts available in Heather Mitts, Christie Rampone and Cat Whitehill, but if Chalupny isn't playing outside back, it sets up an interesting three-way battle to impress between Lopez, Tina Ellertson (formerly Tina Frimpong) and India Trotter.
Based on recent history, Lopez enters as the early favorite.
The only player on the Algarve roster with college eligibility remaining, Lopez played 210 of a possible 270 minutes at the Four Nations. Ellertson and Trotter combined to play a total of 99 minutes in the team's three games at that tournament.
If Lopez continues to emerge as mature beyond her years in providing another option to push forward from the back line, she could all but lock up a spot on the World Cup roster. If not, Trotter and Ellertson remain intriguing options whom Ryan may want to see in more extended duty.
Hope Solo: With an extra day of rest between the second and third games of group play -- games had been played every other day in the past -- it will be interesting to see how Ryan deploys Solo and Brianna Scurry in net.
Although Ryan is usually careful to avoid labeling either player the team's top keeper, it's pretty clear that Solo, who started 18 of the team's 22 games last year and two of three at the Four Nations this year, controls her own fate for the World Cup.
But if Scurry gets a start in group play and turns in a stellar performance, or if Solo struggles, would Ryan start Scurry in a potential championship match?
The United States opens play against China on March 7, then faces Finland on March 9 and Sweden on March 12. The championship and third-place matches are on March 14.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's soccer coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.