U.S. women look to continue domination of Mexico
BOSTON, Mass. -- Nobody remembers how many haymakers the heavyweight champ lands against sparring partners while training for a title fight, but that doesn't mean they don't matter.
The United States women's national team opens its eight-game domestic schedule against Mexico Saturday at Gillette Stadium outside of Boston. As coach Greg Ryan's team continues to build toward September's World Cup in China, success in each individual game is judged as much by the way the run of play impacts the long-term outlook as by how it impacts the scoreboard. But the two objectives are far from mutually exclusive.
"You play every game to win and you improve your process of development when you do that," Ryan said after rain and cold washed out the team's practice at Harvard's Ohiri Field on Thursday. "So I don't see them as separate entities. We're going to go out there and put our best effort in every one of these eight games. We're going, in general, to play our top team, because eight games isn't a lot to get ready for the World Cup over this amount of time. ... I've never looked at development and winning as two separate things."
Of course, that's an easier philosophy to follow when the end result seems as inevitable as it does against Mexico.
The Americans will look to improve on an 18-0-0 record in the all-time series against Mexico. And despite the recent improvement of their southern neighbor, it's a series they've dominated by an 84-6 goal margin on the scoreboard.
Mexico enters Saturday's game on the heels of failing to qualify for the World Cup, but even that disappointment was in some ways a reflection of the side's improvement. After finishing third behind the United States and Canada at last year's Gold Cup qualifying event, Mexico's hopes rested on a home-and-home playoff with Asian hopeful Japan. But after falling by a 2-0 score in Japan on March 10, coach Leo Cuellar's team was eliminated on aggregate goals despite rebounding with a 2-1 win at home on March 17.
"From numbers one to 18, Japan probably has the stronger team," Ryan said. "But I was actually really impressed with Mexico coming back and beating Japan 2-1 in Mexico. I was really impressed with that result. I think that speaks very well for the Mexican team, because that is a very good Japanese team. They should be very proud of that accomplishment alone, and I think it just shows that they're closing the gap."
The United States will also look to remain perfect under Ryan. Since taking over from April Heinrichs two years ago, Ryan has led the national team to a 38-match unbeaten streak (the lone setback coming on penalty kicks against Germany in last year's Algarve Cup, a result which didn't officially count as a loss).
On the heels of a title at this year's Algarve Cup in March, combined with Germany's poor showing at the same tournament, the United States has regained both the official top spot in FIFA's world rankings and an unofficial aura as the world's preeminent side under Ryan's guidance. But both labels are little more than paper crowns without hardware to back them up, which is why Saturday's game and the seven to follow are significant regardless of the opponent.
In addition to sorting out a surplus in midfield, following Shannon Boxx's return from injury and Carli Lloyd's breakout performance at the Algarve, Ryan needs all eight games to continue auditioning candidates to play up front alongside Abby Wambach and Kristine Lilly.
"It's still being sorted out, and it will continue to be sorted out, my guess is throughout the summer," Ryan said of the rotation up front. "We're going to continue to look at some other players who could potentially contribute in that role as well. … Clearly, Abby and Lilly continue to prove they're two of the top strikers in the world, and now it's just making sure that our third striker is playing very effectively with those two."
The coach praised Lindsay Tarpley, Heather O'Reilly and Natasha Kai for playing well at various times, but he stopped short of proclaiming any one of them the ultimate solution.
And given the search for production up front, no decision said more than Ryan leaving Kai off the roster for the trip to New England, instead giving 19-year-old UCLA star Lauren Cheney a spot alongside Wambach, Lilly, Tarpley and O'Reilly.
Kai had been one of the few roster regulars to emerge exclusively during Ryan's short time as coach. A star at the University of Hawaii, she burst on the international scene with two goals at last year's Algarve Cup and scored five times in her first eight appearances. A free spirit on and off the field, she seemed to symbolize a creativity encouraged under Ryan that some felt was stifled toward the end of Heinrichs' regime.
Kai still seems to have the inside track on claiming a spot for the trip to China, given the inexperience of alternatives like Cheney or UCLA teammate Danesha Adams, but her absence this week sends a signal that at some point creativity with the ball at her feet has to mesh with consistency in her approach.
"Tash is back in L.A., working on her fitness level," Ryan said. "We think Tash can work her way back into our lineup. She's got some work to do on her fitness, and if she gets that done, I think Tash will have a good shot at being back in this lineup."
Cheney represents an intriguing subplot after scoring 19 goals in 21 games as a freshman for the Bruins, but it appears that despite impressing Ryan during the team's most recent residency camp (Cheney also made the trip to the Four Nations Cup in January), her short-term role is one of insurance for the unthinkable.
"Lauren is a very strong player, and she's a target striker," Ryan said. "You never want to think it, but if Abby took a knock and couldn't play, Lauren is a good target player to fill in for Abby, so we could have someone that is a strong player up front that could hold the ball. ... She's played very well for us in our most recent camp."
The United States is more likely to come out of Saturday's game with a win than with answers to all its questions, but every result is part of a bigger equation.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's soccer coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.