U.S. women's team set to face Sweden
With the 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup in Germany less than a year away, the United States, ranked No. 1 in the world, will face No. 4-ranked Sweden in two international friendlies this week: Tuesday in Omaha, Neb., and Saturday in East Hartford, Conn. While it's often hard to read too much into exhibitions, Sweden is a good team and will be looking to perform well. This is a chance for U.S. coach Pia Sundhage to find out what works and what doesn't as the team prepares for qualifying (CONCACAF Women's World Cup qualifying dates have yet to be announced).
The return of Christie Rampone
The U.S. captain and central defender is once again back in camp after the birth of her daughter in March, and she seems likely to play in the upcoming friendlies. (She was in camp for the Germany friendly in May but did not see any action.) Rampone captained the U.S. to a gold medal in the 2008 Olympics, engineering an impressive defensive effort to shut down Marta and her Brazilian teammates in the gold-medal game. One of Rampone's best qualities is her leadership, evident last year when she took over as player/coach of her Women's Professional Soccer club team, Sky Blue FC. Rampone not only led her team to the title, topping Marta's Los Angeles Sol in the final, but also revealed after the match that she was three months pregnant.
"She's a rock star," defender Kate Markgraf said earlier this season.
Markgraf would know, as she is also working her way back into form after giving birth to twins in July 2009. Markgraf, now playing her first WPS season with the Chicago Red Stars, has played every minute of every game so far this season for her club team. She and Rampone will be competing with 2009 WPS Defender of the Year Amy LePeilbet (Boston Breakers) and FC Gold Pride captain Rachel Buehler, who have formed a solid team in the middle of the defense.
It's all good news for Sundhage, who can mix and match a number of players on the defensive line.
The midfield is perhaps where the biggest question marks about the U.S. team come into play. Shannon Boxx (FC Gold Pride) is a sure bet and Heather O'Reilly (Sky Blue FC) will see action on the right side.
Sundhage has brought in an interesting crop of players who will be competing for the other two spots in midfield. Carli Lloyd, for example. She is back in camp after missing the Germany game with a broken ankle, but she has not seen much action for her Sky Blue FC team this season and seems unlikely to play. Lloyd has missed the past 10 club games because of her injury and struggled in her first WPS season with the Chicago Red Stars. She has always raised her game on the national team level, though, and once fit, she will likely see a lot of time in the midfield.
Kristine Lilly, 38, known for her skills on the left wing, is back on Sundhage's radar, too, as the coach is looking for flank players. Meanwhile, Lori Lindsey (Philadelphia) could be the center midfielder that the U.S. needs. One of the players who has benefited most from having a U.S.-based women's league, Lindsey played her way into the national team mix with the Washington Freedom last year and has flourished in Philadelphia, tallying two goals and five assists in 13 games so far this season.
Lori Chalupny (Atlanta Beat) has yet to return to the U.S. roster since taking time off because of headaches, though she has been playing regularly in WPS.
Abby Wambach's strike partner
The U.S. once again will be looking for someone to play up top with Abby Wambach, with Amy Rodriguez looking like the clubhouse leader. After a frustrating and disappointing rookie season in WPS with the Boston Breakers, Rodriguez has found new life after being traded to the Philadelphia Independence. With seven goals in 13 games, Rodriguez trails only Brazilian superstar Marta in the league's scoring race, rediscovering her scoring touch after tallying just one goal last year. Rodriguez's 45 caps -- second to Wambach's 138 among forwards on the current U.S. roster -- make her the most experienced of those competing to play alongside Wambach.
Next in the running is Kelley O'Hara, one of the most impressive rookies in WPS this season. After winning the 2009 Hermann Trophy for her outstanding senior season at Stanford, she has three goals and two assists as part of FC Gold Pride's high-powered offense. She has only two national team caps under her belt -- and will definitely need to get a few more games in -- but she is an exciting option for Sundhage up top.
Another option is Lauren Cheney, whom Boston acquired with Philadelphia's draft pick after trading Rodriguez to the Independence. But Cheney has struggled to find the back of the net in her rookie campaign with the Breakers. After scoring in the season opener, she didn't score again until two weeks ago, snapping a nine-game drought. She has five national team goals this season, all before the start of the WPS season.
And in goal
The most solid position on the U.S. roster continues to be goalkeeper. Hope Solo (Atlanta) isn't in the middle of her best club season, but she proved in the win over Germany that she is still the best keeper in the world. She wasn't called on much, but she made three world-class saves that preserved the shutout.
Backing Solo up, and likely to get some playing time in these friendlies, are Nicole Barnhart (FC Gold Pride) and Jillian Loyden (Chicago). Barnhart has been the regular backup of late and holds a slight lead over Loyden for the best goals-against average in WPS this season.
The United States will face Sweden on Tuesday in Omaha, Neb. (ESPN/ESPN3.com, 9 p.m. ET) and on Saturday in East Hartford, Conn. at 7:30 p.m. ET.
Jacqueline Purdy covers women's soccer for ESPN.com. She also is an editor for ESPNRadio.com. You can reach her at twitter.com/jacquelinepurdy.