Australia test looms large for USWNT side looking to turn things around

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Harry How
After a subpar SheBelieves Cup, Thursday's match is the last chance the U.S. will have before the World Cup to test itself against a fellow contender

Any friendly that takes place two months before a World Cup is inherently important, but Thursday’s match against Australia will carry an extra sense of urgency for the U.S. women’s national team.

The USWNT went 28 games without a loss before January’s defeat at France. That game could have been an aberration, but the SheBelieves Cup in February and March suggested it may instead be the start of a worrying trend.

Jill Ellis’ side stumbled to two draws against fellow World Cup contenders Japan and England, before narrowly defeating Brazil in the tournament’s final game. England emerged from the tournament victorious, while the U.S. left with a need to get things right before the World Cup.

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The first post-SheBelieves opportunity to do that comes Thursday night, but it’s also the last chance for the U.S. to test itself against a fellow World Cup contender before the tournament kicks off in France in June.

“We both want to put in good performances obviously heading into the World Cup,” U.S. attacker Megan Rapinoe said.

“[Australia] is a team that we could possibly face and likely will be making it into the knockout round, so they’re huge games.”

The Matildas have reached the quarterfinals in each of the past three World Cups, and have been tipped to go even farther this summer in France – though a recent coaching change shrouded in controversy will test the team’s resolve.

After Thursday’s game at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park outside of Denver, the U.S. will have four more matches before the World Cup. Only two of the team’s remaining four opponents qualified for the World Cup though, and neither South Africa nor New Zealand will be tipped to make much noise in France.

Megan Rapinoe USWNT Brazil SheBelieves Cup 2019

That’s why Thursday’s game is imperative for a team that’s trying to solidify itself again as the favorite to lift the World Cup for a second straight time.

“These games are huge, you just don’t get very many games like this where both teams have a lot riding on it,” Rapinoe said.

“You want to not make the same mistakes that you made the last three games and continue to grow and build on those little things that we need to work on.”

Thursday’s match will also take on extra importance because, along with Sunday's game against Belgium in Los Angeles, it will be the last chance for Ellis to evaluate her team before naming her World Cup roster.

“I think this game is a really important match for us,” Ellis said at her pre-game press conference on Wednesday.

“There’s a lot involved in this game for both coaches in terms of making [roster] decisions.”

One of the more interesting decisions Ellis will have is who starts at right back with normal starter Kelley O’Hara out. Former stalwart Ali Krieger has been brought back after two years away from the team, but Emily Sonnett and Casey Short should, in theory, be ahead of Krieger on the depth chart.

Should Krieger get minutes on Thursday, it could be a sign she has a real chance to make the World Cup squad.

Aside from the individual decisions Ellis has to make, the manager will desperately want to see an improved performance from her team overall. Depending on one’s view of group-stage opponent Sweden, the next time the U.S. takes on a fellow World Cup contender could be in a potential high-profile quarterfinal against host France in Paris on June 28.

Prior to that game, the U.S. will have plenty of chances to fine-tune their performances, but only once more against another realistic contender.

“It’s just a really good team,” Rapinoe said of Australia. “Anytime you can play someone really good, that kind of sharpens you, so I always love these opportunities.”

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