US women view Tournament of Nations as World Cup tuneup

KANSAS CITY, Kan. (AP) — Amy Rodriguez and Becky Sauerbrunn arrived in Kansas City this week with their focus somewhat split.

The veterans of the U.S. women’s national team understand the importance of the four-team Tournament of Nations, which begins with a match against Japan on Thursday night. And they surely remember losing to Australia in the event last year — the last time the squad was defeated in any competition.

But the national team stalwarts also understand that qualifying for next year’s World Cup looms in October. And after their debacle at the Rio Olympics, they want to avoid any embarrassment in that event.

“That’s the big thing for us,” said Rodriguez, part of two Olympic championship teams and the 2015 squad that beat Japan in the World Cup final. “We’re going to take this tournament as a preparation for qualifiers, because that’s the big tournament coming up.”

If that’s the case, someone ought to let Jill Ellis know.

The national team coach has spent months considering the various roster permutations available to her, and she came up with a blend of old and new for this week’s round-robin tournament. But once Ellis settled on her 23-member team, her focus turned entirely toward winning what’s in front of her.

World Cup qualifying? That can wait a couple weeks.

“The priority is performance and winning,” Ellis said, pointing out that all four teams — the U.S., Japan, Australia and Brazil — are ranked in the world’s top 10. “We want to come and win this tournament. It gives you a psychologically good feeling to have that.

“I think what we take away from these games will help us moving forward,” she added, “but I think the players we have coming back, that feeling of getting back on top of the podium — you know, building and gaining confidence as we march toward qualifiers, that’s important.”

The U.S. will also play a pair of friendlies against Chile before World Cup qualifying. But the reality is the trio of matches in the Tournament of Nations promise to be the toughest matches they have until qualifying, and arguably trumps anybody they’ll face in the CONCACAF tournament.

The opening match Thursday between Australia and Brazil features two of the world’s top scorers in Aussie standout Samantha Kerr and Brazilian phenom Marta. The Matildas also have a quartet of teenagers playing important roles, including 15-year-old striker Mary Fowler.

Japan, the dominant power in Asia, beat the U.S. at the World Cup final in 2011 before dropping the rematch three years ago. They’re led by Saki Kumagai, one of the best defenders in the world.

The Americans counter with a talented if unsettled roster due largely to injuries.

Sauerbrunn missed some time to injury earlier this year, while Tobin Heath, Rose Lavelle, Samantha Mewis, Julie Ertz and Morgan Brian likewise made the roster after missing time to injury.

Mallory Pugh is out until at least August, though, after the winger sustained a knee injury during the National Women’s Soccer League season. Defender Kelley O’Hara remains out with a hamstring injury.

“We have to remember we followed winning the World Cup by getting one of the worst results in the Olympics,” said Sauerbrunn, part of the team that failed to escape group play at the 2016 Rio Games.

“I think that lit a flame under us,” she said, “because we never want to feel like that. The best thing about this team is we’ve never rested on our laurels. We’ve always tried to push that bar higher and higher, and that’s what we’ve been doing the last couple years.”

Indeed, the Americans have been downright dominant since Australia sprang a 1-0 upset in the opener of the Tournament of Nations last year. They rallied to beat Brazil and routed Japan to finish second in the event, and have gone 15-0-2 in all matches over the ensuing 12 months.

“These players, any time they come in they know the demands. Second place isn’t good enough,” Ellis said. “That’s the expectation and what I think has helped propel this program so much.”

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