RICHMOND, Va. -- The United States faces Iceland at the University of Richmond Stadium on Sunday (2 p.m., ET, ESPN2), but the real opponent for coach Greg Ryan's team remains the calendar.
To be sure, Iceland represents a far more challenging test than an overmatched Chinese Taipei team posed in a 10-0 rout for the United States last week. As recently as 2004, Iceland pushed the United States to the final whistle in a 4-3 loss in a friendly played in Rochester, N.Y., and the world's 21st-ranked team tied Sweden in a World Cup qualifier this summer (before ultimately finishing third in its group behind Sweden and the Czech Republic).
But in the final domestic game before the U.S. Gold Cup in November, a tournament that will serve as the World Cup qualifying process for the CONCACAF region, the United States is understandably just as focused on the big picture as on this week's opponent.
The United States enters Sunday's game with a 12-0-3 record this year (including the final of the Algarve Cup, which Germany won on penalty kicks after the teams deadlocked at 0-0 through regulation and overtime). Since kicking off the domestic portion of the schedule in July, the United State is a 6-0-0 with 27 goals scored against just four goals allowed. One way or another, since both Canada and Mexico were among those wins, those games likely included three World Cup teams, as both China and Sweden have already qualified.
On the surface, it has been an entirely successful summer, but it's not this fall that Ryan has been building toward.
"I think we're not going to be playing our best soccer until September of 2007, but that's the way it should be," Ryan said. "This year, we probably made up 70 percent of what we need to do between now and 2007, but always with the learning curve it goes like this [Ryan demonstrates a gradually ascending incline, with a nearly vertical peak] -- you make a lot of growth and then the last bit's harder. That will be next year."
The summer began with a knee injury that knocked midfielder Shannon Boxx out of action, forcing Ryan to scramble to fill a position at holding midfielder that he probably thought was set for the next decade. But much of the roster maneuvering has been an intentional effort to get experience for a new crop of national team players.
Five players who have played in at least 10 of the team's first 13 games this season have earned more than half of their career caps this calendar year: Tina Frimpong, Natasha Kai, Carli Lloyd, Amy LePeilbet and Leslie Osborne. Another young player, outside back Lori Chalupny, has already nearly doubled her career total of starts with six this season.
Getting those players up to speed has been one of the year's primary challenges.
"Obviously, we've got to get through qualifying next month, and that's what our priority is right now," star forward Abby Wambach said on Friday. "But I think that this team will always have a lot of room to grow, depending on what sort of things Greg brings to the table. And also, we're all professionals, the type of things that we bring to the table. It's going to be really important; it might be the most important stuff. Greg's more of a player's coach, he'll give us the guidelines and we've got to figure out a lot of stuff on our own.
"The biggest thing right now is some of these players learning what it is, actually, to be a professional athlete. Learning to take breaks, learning to keep your body fit, learning to have good nutrition, have good ways about you -- not getting yourself in trouble. ... It's great whenever we're in a residency, Greg is providing, but when we leave, everybody leaves each other. And so it provides a stressful situation for some of them, because they don't know if what they're doing is right."
But clearly, the young players are learning well from veterans like Wambach, Aly Wagner, Kristine Lilly and others. If recent games are any indication, Lloyd, Chalupny, Osborne (an unqualified success filling in for Boxx) are all good bets to start against Iceland and seem to have established themselves as regulars.
Unsightly as it was at times, last week's rout of Chinese Taipei played its own role in helping the development of those players, and just as importantly, a still younger group of players led by Stephanie Lopez and Megan Rapinoe. (Sadly, just days after scoring the first two goals for the senior national team, Rapinoe tore her ACL while playing for the University of Portland. Christie Welsh arrived in Richmond late on Friday night to take her place on this week's roster.)
"There's a lot of pros that can come from that game," Wambach said of the 10-0 win. "One, a lot of younger players get a lot of time in the game. It's like the old adage that coaches say, 'You just need more experience,' but they're not willing to give you the experience to get it, give you the time to get the experience. We had three players score their first goals, one player get her first cap. These are the things -- I remember my first goal, I remember my first cap. It didn't matter who we were playing; I actually would wish I had played a Chinese Taipei sort of team to get one or two goals under my belt to begin with. Because that just sends people into a whole new dimension, it puts people in a different confidence bracket."
Not that this Sunday's game is strictly a chance to reflect on what has already taken place this year. Iceland presents real challenges for the United States.
"They knock a lot of long balls, they fight for the loose balls, and then they either shoot it from where they're at, or they play it behind your back line again," Ryan said. "So Iceland is actually great preparation for Canada, who we're likely to face at some point in CONCACAF qualification. They're a great tune-up game for that qualifier."
And while it's not easy to put a positive aesthetic spin on the "bunker" mentality Iceland is likely to employ on defense -- a strategy almost as exciting as the neutral-zone trap in hockey, the intentional walk in baseball and the four-corners offense in basketball -- it will provide an interesting strategic test for Ryan's offense.
"Instead of coming out at us, they're going to pull back and defend very deep on the field in front of their own box with 10 players behind the line and in front of the goal," Ryan said. "So we have to get used to that. Because teams are going to try and bunker against us, and if they can keep us to 0-0, they can win in penalties. So we've got to get better at breaking down teams that play more of a defensive style.
"They really give us some good challenges for this young team. If you get frustrated because you're not scoring, it becomes harder to score. You have to keep working at, but you can't get frustrated. We'll see. If you get your goals early against a team like that, you're sailing smooth. If you don't get your goals early, it can be a long frustrating night."
In some way, Sunday's game against Iceland marks the end of one stage of development for the United States on the road to the World Cup. As such, it's impossible not to stop and reflect on what has come before and what comes next. And with any luck, it might even prove to be an entertaining commencement.
"I feel like we're playing great right now," Ryan said. "We're defending very well, we're creating lots of chances, we're starting to finish our goals pretty well, so I'm really happy with where we're at. I just think this team can become significantly better over the course of next year."
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's soccer coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com