Home to many of history's greatest innovations, China might have provided the United States women's national team with some fresh solutions to old quandaries during a dress rehearsal for the World Cup at the recent Four Nations Tournament.
Making the first of two trips this year to the host country, the United States came away from the Four Nations with a title after beating China 2-0 in the event's final game. The team also registered draws against Germany and England to finish atop what amounted to a simulation of a World Cup group.
The United States managed to keep coach Greg Ryan undefeated (27-0-7 since taking over the national team) despite fielding a young roster that included four active college players in Stephanie Lopez, Yael Averbuch, Casey Noguiera and Lauren Cheney. All but Lopez had no prior caps with the senior national team. The roster was also without veteran mainstays Abby Wambach, Kristine Lilly, Aly Wagner and Christie Rampone, who were given a few extra weeks to rest up for what promises to be a long year.
But more important than the hardware, especially considering Germany fielded a similarly incomplete roster, the trip added some interesting new layers to several debates.
Before leaving for China, Ryan stressed that getting more goal production out of midfield was one of the most important challenges facing the team this year. Given the opportunity to experiment, he didn't hesitate to follow up those words with action.
Not only did Ryan introduce a new face into the midfield mix, moving Lori Chalupny from defense back to the position at which she excelled in college for the University of North Carolina, he introduced an entirely new formation for the rest of the lineup.
After playing Ryan's traditional 4-3-3 in the first two games, the United States came out in a 3-4-3 against China, pushing Chalupny (who also played midfield in the old formation against Germany) and Stephanie Lopez out wide, with speedy Heather Mitts and Tina Frimpong playing in front of Kate Markgraf in the three-man back line.
"This was our seventh time in the last 13 months that we've played China," Ryan said. "And just watching them, and seeing how they organize in their midfield, I just felt like we needed one more player in the midfield to be able to close them down and then be able to get into the attack."
It's tough to argue with the results, as Chalupny drove a ball from outside the box for the opening goal. A dangerous weapon when given the space and freedom to make overlapping runs out of the back, Chalupny sometimes got lost in the shuffle last year when pinned down on defense.
"Lori loves to attack, so getting her up in the midfield allowed us to get her up higher and get more chances to go forward," Ryan said. "And she likes playing out wide, so in the 3-4-3 we were able to get her out in a wide position where she could attack the flank, take players on, get crosses in and still get chances to shoot. So I think it's been a really positive move for us to move her up into the midfield, but in the middle and out wide."
Cat Whitehill earned her 100th career cap in the opener against Germany, but the most important milestone for the back line might have been Kate Markgraf's three appearances. Despite getting knocked out of the opener after colliding with Whitehill, Markgraf started all three games during the six-day event. For someone who just gave birth last summer, her durability was an indication she'll be in top form for September.
After playing in all 90 minutes of both games at last November's Gold Cup, Heather Mitts continued to be the ironwoman of the back line. Mitts and Chalupny were the only U.S. players to play all 270 minutes in China.
"She's a very, very steady defender for us," Ryan said of Mitts. "The other thing is she's very fit, and it takes an extremely high level of fitness to be able to play 90 minutes for three games in a row when there is only a one-day break between games. There are very few players who can do that."
Even with Chalupny playing more minutes in the midfield than defense, Ryan got strong play out of his outside backs, most notably Stephanie Lopez. While the other college players on the roster were mostly getting their feet wet, Lopez capitalized on the experience she gained with the senior team last year and impressed her coach.
"Stephanie is definitely ready to step up and compete for a starting position with this team," Ryan said. "We felt like this was a really important tournament for Stephanie because she was going to get opportunities to play a lot of minutes. The more she plays, the better she plays and the more confidence she gets."
Wambach and Lilly weren't around, but Ryan's forwards still accounted for two of the team's three goals, with Heather O'Reilly and Natasha Kai both finding the back of the net. For O'Reilly it was a perfect opportunity to reposition herself for starting consideration after devoting most of last fall to her college season.
"Heather actually played very, very well," Ryan said. "And I think she showed that she can be one of those players that plays up front for us."
And at least for now, Ryan seems comfortable without a clear favorite to start alongside Wambach and Lilly, viewing the three-way race as a strength rather than a weakness.
"I think what came out of the trip, really, is that just that for [O'Reilly], for Tarpley and for Natasha Kai, they all showed signs that they're ready to step up and play a significant role for this team." Ryan said. "I think they each showed signs of being impact players on the forward line."
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's soccer coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.