2017 #SheBelieves Cup Preview

Starting on Wednesday, March 1st, the world of Women's Soccer gets quite busy, as three major tournaments will kick off on the same day. 12 national teams will meet in Cyprus for the Cyprus Cup, 12 more national teams (including Canada) will make their way to Portugal for the Algarve Cup, and four of the top five sides will clash in the SheBelieves Cup in the United States. There are a few other smaller tournaments happening as well, but most of the top teams will be in one of these three Cups. I'll get into depth on the SheBelieves teams below, but here are the matchups happening overseas.

Cyprus Cup

Scotland international Kim Little and Wales native Jess Fishlock highlight what should be a very competitive mid-rankings tournament. Korea DPR looks the class of the show, but a draw against Italy on the first day could be a speed bump.

Wednesday, March 1 (FIFA Rankings in parenthesis)

Korea DPR (10) v Italy (16)
New Zealand (19) v Scotland (21)
Czech Republic (33) v Republic of Ireland (34)
Belgium (25) v Switzerland (17)
Korea Republic (18) v Austria (24)
Hungary (40) v Wales (36)

Friday, March 3 

Switzerland (17) v Korea DPR (10)
Austria (24) v New Zealand (19)
Wales (36) v Czech Republic (33)
Italy (16) v Belgium (25)
Scotland (21) v Korea Republic (18)
Republic of Ireland (34) v Hungary (40)

Monday, March 6

Italy (16) v Switzerland (17)
Korea DPR (10) v Belgium (25)
Republic of Ireland (34) v Wales (36)
Austria (24) v Scotland (21)
New Zealand (19) v Korea Republic (18)
Czech Republic (33) v Hungary (40)

Wednesday, March 8

Six matches based on results, including the final.

Algarve Cup

Formerly the favorite destination this time of year for the USWNT, the Algarve Cup is doing just fine without the American visitors. This looks to be a great test for some rising teams packed with talent. Canada's Women's National Team arrives with an Olympic Bronze medal, a 4th-place FIFA rank, and no higher-ranked teams in the tournament. They'll want to win, and should have a fairly easy path to winning their group, facing Portugal, Denmark and Russia. The other groups, however, are stacked. (UPDATE: Diana Matheson is out for Canada with a torn ACL, which will keep her out of the Seattle Reign lineup all season as well. #FURT)

Wednesday, March 1 

Portugal (38) v Russia (23)
Denmark (15) v Canada (4)
Japan (7) v Spain (14)
Norway (11) v Iceland (20)
Netherlands (12) v China PR (13)
Australia (6) v Sweden (8)

Friday, March 3

Russia (23) v Canada (4)
Portugal (38) v Denmark (15)
Japan (7) v Iceland (20)
Spain (14) v Norway (11)
Australia (6) v Netherlands (12)
China PR (13) v Sweden (8)

Monday, March 6

Russia (23) v Denmark (15)
Portugal (38) v Canada (4)
Iceland (20) v Spain (14)
Norway (11) v Japan (7)
Sweden (8) v Netherlands (12)
China PR (13) v Australia (6)

Wednesday, March 8

Six matches based on results, including the final.

SheBelieves Cup

It's year two for the mini-tournament featuring four of the world's top five teams. Last year, the USWNT cleaned house, narrowly winning every match and taking home the SheBelieves Cup, er, trophy? 

Whatever you think of that thing (for a good time, do a Twitter search for #SheBelieves Trophy 2016), it is the top prize to be earned this spring, and the four very good sides vying for it will not care what it looks like. Taking it home will mean that they've earned more points than the best teams in the world. Can Germany or France or England dethrone the US Women?  

The Teams

Germany

Germany currently sits in 2nd place in the FIFA World Rankings, despite their having taken home the gold medal at the Olympics last summer. That victory was the end of an era for the German women, as several world-beating players announced their retirement from international football in the subsequent months. Melanie Beherenger, Saskia Bartusiak and the incomparable Célia Šašić are all gone, along with their brilliant and always impeccably-dressed manager, Silvia Neid. Of the legends, only the opportunistic veteran Anja Mittag remains.

These losses have been filled by a bevy of younger talent. Dzsenifer Marozsan is one of the most electric players in the world, who could vault into superstardom with a standout performance at the SheBelieves Cup. Alexandra Popp will eat you for breakfast. Sara Däbritz will dispossess anyone nearby and find a way to get up field. The young German women are probably more talented than the players they're replacing, and they haven't yet had a world stage upon which to hit their stride. 

Unfortunately, it's not all good news.

Tabea Kemme and Svenja Huth won't make the trip to America as they both recover from injuries. I rate Kemme among the world's best outside backs, and at Turbine-Potsdam this season, she's moved to forward and become the team's leading scorer. Her football intellect is top class and it's really fun to watch her move off the ball, draw defenders where she wants them before slotting perfect passes to her teammates, and pop up out of crunching tackles that she's expertly timed to win a possession without committing a foul. Plus, she's a police officer when she's not playing football. We all lose when she's injured. 

Here's the full SheBelieves Roster as of February 13, when they were still expecting Kemme and Huth to play. They were replaced by Verena Faißt and Hasret Kayikci. Let's hope our announcers have been practicing their pronunciations. Pro tip: "ß" sounds like "SS," not "B." Hence, former German midfielder Lena Goeßling = Lena GoeSSling, not Lena Go-Bling. Oy.

France

Sneaky, sneaky France. France that nobody talks about. Third-ranked France. Overlooked France. Healthy France. What will we see when most of Alex Morgan's Olympique Lyonnais teammates face off against teams that can strike back?

It's possible to build most of a starting XI with names that many followers of world women's football will be able to put to a face without trying. Up top, pick from Le Sommer, Thomis, Delie. Tough choice. Move back to midfield, and add Abily, Lavogez, and Henry. Plop Renard and Bouhaddi behind them, and never worry about coverage. Fill in the rest with more class. 

France has a reputation of under-performing, but this team is extremely talented and many of the starters have been playing together for long enough that we should see some beautiful possession. Renard is a holy terror on set pieces. I wouldn't be surprised if she's the difference.

England

The low team on the totem pole is fifth-ranked England. But the Lionesses shouldn't be overlooked. Like France, they're healthy (except Jo Potter, who was replaced on the roster by Liverpool Ladies captain Gemma Bonner on Sunday). Along with Germany and France, they've got the UEFA Euros coming up and will want to start the year on the front foot with a strong performance in the States.

Likable netminder (and California-born) Karen Bardsley might be best remembered due to her untimely subsitution with a swollen eye during the 2015 Women's World Cup semi-final against Canada, but she's a great communicator with a knack for critical saves. The rest of the team is a who's-who of English talent, from the Houston Dash's Rachel Daly to FA luminaries Fara Williams, Alex Scott, Ellen White, Karen Carney, Toni Duggan, Jodie Taylor, Casey Stoney, Steph Houghton, Lucy Bronze... I could pretty much just list the whole roster. Key to this is the fact that a very strong core of women are in the prime of their playing careers, all at the same time. It's easy to think Steph Houghton or Ellen White or Karen Carney have been around forever, but they're only 28, 27 and 29, respectively. 

Fara Williams has scored 40 goals over 150 caps for the Lionesses, and has an amazing personal story related to her being homeless during a six-year period earlier in her football career. She'll look to combine with Karen Carney, who will be trying to add to her 25 goals over 110 caps while bringing one of the better non-HAO game-faces to the tournament. 

Here's the Lionesses squad for the SheBelieves Cup:

United States of America

Despite crashing out of the Olympic tournament in Rio last summer without a medal, The USWNT retained their spot atop the FIFA rankings, and Carli Lloyd repeated as FIFA World Player of the Year. The team still doesn't have a collective bargaining agreement in place for the future, and are playing under the terms of the old one while they negotiate something closer to #EqualPlayEqualPay

We'll hear lots of fun statistics about how the team was unbeaten in 2016. That's only because of an idiotic rule that doesn't count a match decided by penalty kicks as anything other than a draw. Obviously, the draw and subsequent failure to convert more PKs than Sweden last year did indeed result in elimination from the tournament. That feels suspiciously like a loss to me. But that's so 2016.

Jill Ellis studied the 9 defender, 1 attacker tactics (possible exaggeration) that Sweden used to defend against her crosses-heavy strategy and has deployed a 3-back formation in most of the matches since the Olympics. 

Between the pipes, it's going to be either Alyssa Naeher (probably) or Ashlyn Harris. Jane Campbell will be available in case of emergencies, but I believe the tournament rules require the same GK to start all three matches. 

Rather than call upon a career defender to occupy the center of the defense, Ellis has most frequently lined up Allie Long as the single center back. This pushes co-captain Becky Sauerbrunn or CB Julie Johnston off to the side, with Ali Krieger or Kelley O'Hara often mopping up on the other side. Long is listed on the Cup roster as a midfielder, which isn't a change from any of the other rosters. It makes one wonder, however, why you'd carry six defenders on a 23-person roster to fill only two field positions. I'd rather see Becky and J.J. holding down the fort with O'Hara or Krieger running up and down their favorite sideline. Casey Short has looked valuable in this role as well, but again, it's a numbers game across the back. 

Ahead of Long on the pitch, Ellis's 3-back formation permits at least one additional dedicated attacking player to outsmart a side that wants to sit back and defend with their entire team. The midfield has been a bit uneven since the World Cup victory, with several new faces taking on bigger roles or being forced to adapt to the unfamiliar system. Carli Lloyd will float around just behind the forwards, sometimes interchanging with them for sections of the match depending on what's working. Tobin Heath, Morgan Brian, Lindsey Horan and Sam Mewis have clocked the most minutes among the other midfielders on the roster not destined to play defense. Actually, they've played ALL of the minutes, as uncapped players Rose Lavelle and 16-year old Brianna Pinto have made the senior roster for the first time. If Pinto is capped, she'll be one of the youngest ever women to compete internationally for the USWNT (Mia Hamm was 15; Kristine Lily was 16). Root accordingly.

The forwards give Ellis a lot of flexibility depending on what is working against other teams. She's got speed, fast feet, physical presence and technical ball skill at her disposal for selection. Jill alluded to Alex Morgan having some sort of a knock when she picked North Carolina Courage's Jess McDonald on her 23-woman roster, so it will be interesting to see if she's fit enough to earn a start. McDonald's NWSL teammate Lynn Williams might be hard to keep on the bench. She's been in fantastic form, has a nose for goal and the speed to get past anyone. Christen Press and Crystal Dunn have historically seen most of the playing time among the rest of the roster, though Mallory Pugh has returned to the senior team after captaining the U-20 squad in their World Cup last November (during which she was injured). Since her spectacular introduction, Pugh has been a bit hit or miss. In form, she's another player that deserves a start no matter who else is available.

The USWNT is in a bit of a transition period, and they're facing very tough competition. Their FIFA World #1 Ranking is at stake, so they won't need any help getting motivated to perform in front of their home fans.

Ahead of the match v England on Saturday, the USWNT and U.S. Soccer will honor Christie Rampone. Still earning her keep for SkyBlue FC in the NWSL, Rampone is a living legend whose first international cap was in early 1997, before several of the current USWNT players were born. She's just a few weeks older than me, and her play never fails to simultaneously inspire me and make me feel fat and lazy for my age. On Saturday, I expect more inspiration than anything else. 

The Schedule

Wednesday, March 1

England (5) v France (3)  4PM Eastern  FoxSportsGo
USA (1) v Germany (2)  7PM Eastern  FS1

Saturday March 4  

France (3) v Germany (2)  2:15PM Eastern  FoxSportsGo
USA (1) v England (5)  5PM Eastern  FOX

Tuesday March 7

Germany (2) v England (5)  4PM Eastern  FoxSportsGo
USA (1) v France (3)  7PM Eastern  FS1

Whew! Check back tomorrow for Match Day 1 game previews, (bad) BOLD Predictions, and #WoSoBingo Cards, custom made and ready for your enjoyment while watching the #SheBelieves Cup. And as always, follow @HerPitch on Twitter for all your in-game live-tweeting needs.