Jeff Kassouf

Leveling the playing field

A line was drawn in the luxurious Hawaiian sands last weekend, and it is one that had been forecast for some time.

Players and coaches for the United States women’s national soccer team stood on the turf at Aloha Stadium in Honolulu, and the joy of spending December in Hawaii quickly turned sour. They had reached their breaking point.

One day earlier, the team learned that one of its best players, Megan Rapinoe, had torn her ACL in a non-contact injury on what players called a sub-par grass training surface. There were apparently sewer plates and plastic coverings surrounding the field which played a role in the injury.

And now, here they were standing on artificial turf once again, for the sixth time in seven matches on a victory tour celebrating their 2015 World Cup triumph.

Aloha Stadium’s field, as described in a letter signed by the entire team and published in the Players’ Tribune, featured “sharp rocks ingrained all over the field.” It had seams that could easily be pulled up, as illustrated clearly by one of goalkeeper Hope Solo’s tweets.

So the players decided not to play, with the support of the coaches. Eventually, even federation officials agreed with the decision. This all took place about 24 hours before Sunday’s match between the U.S. and Trinidad and Tobago was supposed to kick off. U.S. Soccer informed Aloha Stadium officials that night that they would not play the match, and an email went out informing the public around 5:25 a.m. ET – just after midnight local time.

Around 15,000 tickets had already been sold for the match – a small crowd compared to other stops on this victory tour, but still enough to estimate about half-million dollars in ticket revenue alone. On this day, the very loyal fans of this team – some whom are now part of a class-action lawsuit filed to recover travel costs (tickets will all be refunded, U.S. Soccer previously announced) – were to be stood up for a greater cause.

That cause isn’t just turf. By now, most have heard about women’s soccer’s drawn-out battle over playing surfaces. The 2015 Women’s World Cup was the first senior World Cup – men’s or women’s – to be played on the plastic stuff. A group of women – led by the U.S. but with many international cohorts – called it discriminatory, saying the men would never agree to play a World Cup on it (they are right about that). U.S. forward, and world all-time leading goal-scorer, Abby Wambach led the charge. Wambach felt so strongly that she, along with others, attempted legal action in Canada to force FIFA into switching the tournament to grass. Their efforts failed, but they did ensure that at least the next World Cup, in France in 2019, will be on grass.

Yes, this is about turf. This is about the women’s national team playing 15 matches on turf in 2015 and the U.S. men’s national team not playing a single game on an artificial surface. The men’s team even played in the exact venue – the Alamodome – where the women played on Thursday, except the men had sod laid over the turf for their match. The women were afforded no such consideration.

That sod over turf didn’t go so well in May. It can be just as bad if not worse than turf if the grass isn’t laid properly and given enough time to take hold.

But the point that women’s national team players want to drive home is that the men have a choice. Even after such vehement public protest of artificial turf at the Women’s World Cup, U.S. Soccer scheduled eight of 10 – now nine after the match in Hawaii was abandoned – victory tour matches on turf. And the Aloha Stadium turf wasn’t even inspected by U.S. Soccer before the venue was booked.

“This decision wasn’t about ‘turf vs. grass.’ This was about field conditions and player safety,” the team wrote in its Players’ Tribune letter.

“It’s as simple as that. Soccer is our job. Our bodies are our jobs. And nothing should ever be put in competition with our protection and safety as players.”

As U.S. Women’s National Team Players Association general counsel Rich Nichols says, turf is a metaphor.

“The time has come for it to evolve,” Nichols said. “The time has come to put the sport on a level playing field in all facets of the sport and in all facets of the business of the sport.”

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These are the kind of things that have all boiled up to this point. The memo of understanding (MOU) between the U.S. Soccer Federation and its women’s national team expires at the end of 2016, meaning it is time to begin talks of a collective bargaining agreement. The three daunting letters in the world of sports: C.B.A.

The protest of the U.S. women’s soccer team in Hawaii was a catalyst and a platform, but it was also a culmination.

For years, media have noted the rise of women in sports. Each December has brought similar headlines.

The 2012 London Olympics were seen as a watershed moment for female athletes.

The United States sent more female Olympians to the Games than it did males, and those women won more medals. The Olympics featured more women’s events than ever before and, for the first time, every country participating in the Games had at least one female athlete in its delegation – even Qatar, Brunei Darussalam and Saudi Arabia, eventually. A record 4,600-plus women – about 44 percent of the total participants – took part in those Olympics.

Jessica Ennis captured the home nation’s hearts in her gold-medal display in the heptathlon. Gabby Douglas became a gymnastics icon. This U.S. women’s soccer team pulled off another miraculous win in the semifinal against rival Canada to go on and win a third straight gold medal.

Headlines poured out across the globe:

“The women’s Olympics?” some asked, already knowing the answer.

“The Women’s Games,” others more profoundly stated.

“Year of the Woman,” another headline proclaimed.

Since then, we’ve Serena Williams continue to dominate all things tennis. Missy Franklin and Katie Ledecky have supplanted Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte as the next big swimming stars. We saw Mikaela Shiffrin take the Sochi Olympics by storm in 2014, becoming the youngest slalom champion in Olympic alpine skiing history by winning the gold medal weeks before her 19th birthday.

And this year, Ronda Rousey took over the sports world. She dominated her sport so incredibly that we wondered if she would ever lose. And then she did. She showed she is human, and everyone was that much more interested. These are sports stories. They aren’t defined by gender.

The U.S. women’s soccer team’s popularity took off this year. After struggling through the early stages of the World Cup, Carli Lloyd came alive and netted a goal from midfield to become the first woman to score a hat trick in a World Cup final and the team, already one of the most powerful and recognizable in women’s team sports, reached new heights.

MORE: Carli Lloyd on whirlwind year, Olympic clinchers

Television ratings broke records. New York City rolled out a ticker-tape parade for a women’s sports team for the first time. And the squad set out on a 10-game victory tour to celebrate (a tour which is, to be clear, part of the contract and part of how players earn some of their bonuses for the year).

And there was the turf. There were the poor facilities and travel issues, as players and Nichols reference. Enough was enough.

“We expect to be treated equally as our male counterparts,” one part of the team’s open letter reads. There is no gray area there.

The U.S. women are certainly fighting for better treatment. U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati admitted to the New York Times this week, “We screwed up” in Hawaii. The federation has promised that no women’s national team games between January 2016 and the Olympics in August will be played on turf, but Gulati wouldn’t completely rule out turf in the future.

The high-level issues the U.S. women face are not representative of the challenges of many national team programs, like their opponents this week, Trinidad and Tobago.

Trinidadian players go largely unpaid (they almost boycotted Thursday’s game over stipend payment issues before U.S. Soccer loaned them money). They train when they can, with what equipment they can and whichever field they can. Their coach, Randy Waldrum, works for free, but even he has trouble getting a basic plane ticket sorted out with the federation. Talented players are underdeveloped, and they plateau or stop playing. This happens all over the world.

But U.S. players have a platform like no other in the sport. They want better situations for themselves, sure, but there is a top-down thought that change for them will mean change for the greater women’s soccer world. Similarly, it is hoped that change around the world will start with FIFA reforms; it has been proposed that all six confederations have at least one woman on its FIFA executive committee.

Conversations for a new collective bargaining agreement for the U.S. women are only in their early stages. Parties are confident a deal will get done. Closing that deal will be about thinking forward. It will be about building “an infrastructure that is solid, so that in the future, the younger women coming into the game don’t have to deal with some these issues,” as Nichols puts it.

That turf at Aloha Stadium likely wasn’t much worse than some of the other fields the U.S. women have played on this year. Rapinoe recently described picking bolts out of the turf on a recent stop on the victory tour.

Hawaii was the tipping point. What comes next is the real story.

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    A lasting impact

    If timing truly is everything, women’s soccer may have finally gotten the message.

    Over the past three weeks, the National Women’s Soccer League unveiled a 10th franchise, which is being almost unanimously heralded as a big step forward for the league, then kept the news cycle going with splashy player moves, none larger than the sport’s most recognizable face, Alex Morgan, being traded to the new Orlando Pride expansion team.

    In a niche sector of a still growing sport which struggles so greatly to maintain relevance beyond major international competitions, the amount of attention given to the NWSL over the past three weeks is unprecedented. One month after the league championship, three weeks after an expansion announcement and now, several months after the Women’s World Cup, that ‘World Cup boom’ term which executives like to tout is finally coming to fruition.

    Two previous attempts at professional women’s soccer leagues in the U.S. have failed. The Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA) was born from the fervor of the 1999 Women’s World Cup won by the United States on home soil, but that league lasted three seasons, blowing through a widely reported $100 million before folding depressingly on the doorstep of the next Women’s World Cup.

    It would be six years before Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) would take a second crack at selling women’s soccer to the American audience. Where WUSA failed, WPS attempted to learn, slashing budgets to a few million dollars per team. But even those weren’t low enough, among the many stumbling blocks the league faced.

    By the end of 2012, the National Women’s Soccer League was born, this time – for the first time – with the actual backing of the United States Soccer Federation. U.S. Soccer runs the league’s front office and covers league-level expenses. And now the NWSL sits tantalizingly close to the uncharted waters of a fourth season for a professional women’s soccer league in the United States.

    But just like the past two leagues, the question remains: Is it here to stay?

    MORE: Why NWSL players compete for shoestring salaries

    * * *

    Portland is an anomaly in the world of women’s soccer – literally, the entire world. Over 15,000 fans per game turn out to watch women’s soccer a dozen times each year. The very thought of what goes on in the Rose City is something that even four years ago was unfathomable.

    But here stands Portland, a place where 21,144 people showed up to watch a mid-season women’s professional soccer game on a Wednesday night. This is the product of a passionate market which embraces soccer of all kinds.

    Orlando will now look to establish itself as the next big thing in the league. Already, the signs are promising. The team says it already has already sold 2,000 season tickets, more than most established NWSL teams have. Orlando owner Phil Rawlins’ goal is to average 10,000 fans per game, which would second-best to Portland based on 2015 attendance. Early signs are that the goal could be attainable, and Orlando executives have been clear that they have big ambitions (the team will begin its tenure by playing in the cavernous 70,000-seat Citrus Bowl).

    The blockbuster trade sent Alex Morgan and Canadian midfielder Kaylyn Kyle to new the Orlando expansion team – coached by Tom Sermanni, a big name who previously coached the U.S. and Australia national teams – for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 college draft, a highly coveted international roster spot for the next two seasons and, eventually, U.S. defender Meghan Klingenberg.

    Some have called this the Herschel Walker trade of the NWSL. Orlando went all-in on a superstar and Portland gets out of it potentially three-plus long-term roster pieces to build a team around. But such a comparison only sort of scratches the surface. This is a deal which impacts the entire league.

    “Win-win,” is an oft-used but rarely applicable term for trades in sports, but it is fitting here. Orlando executives got the star power they desired; a healthy Morgan will score goals and sell plenty of tickets. Portland, in return, got a large enough haul to justify the move, which came at the request of Morgan in order to be closer to her husband, Servando Carrasco, who plays for Major League Soccer’s Orlando City FC (owned by the same group which owns the Pride).

    The big winner in the deal, however, is the NWSL. The league acquired a 10th franchise and third with Major League Soccer ties, an avenue which is clearly being viewed as a favorable foundation for a women’s team.

    See, this Morgan-to-Orlando trade has people talking. Not just the same people who are already watching, but soccer people, sports people, and the Orlando market. This is the buzz which builds a league.

    “It raises the bar for all of us and it raises the opportunity for us to be collectively ambitious,” NWSL commissioner Jeff Plush said of adding Orlando’s strong ownership group.

    Portland never set out to trade women’s soccer biggest name. The Thorns are rebuilding, but they saw a healthy Alex Morgan – who missed significant time during the 2014 and 2015 seasons due to injuries – as a big part of that turnaround. Morgan, however requested the trade, and it became clear that Orlando’s entry into NWSL in 2016 was in part predicated on getting Morgan.

    So Thorns owner Merritt Paulson personally engaged in negotiations, something he says he almost never does.

    Paulson also owns Major League Soccer’s Portland Timbers FC. He knew that he needed considerable value in return for Morgan to justify the trade to a knowledgeable fan base which has seen its team underachieve the past two years. And Portland is the one place where a marketable star isn’t necessary – the club and the culture are the selling points. Portland’s attendance will be just fine without Morgan.

    As one of the more public owners in advocating for raised standards, Paulson understands the importance of Orlando’s addition.

    “Owners recognize that this league could be the best women’s professional soccer league in the world,” he said. “Not one of the best – the best, in quality of play, in support in the stands, in sort of all the key metrics that you would judge that by. But we do have work to do. There were a lot of mistakes made in the last couple of leagues and I think that this league is off to a good start in correcting some of those mistakes. Having some franchises that have more stability and more infrastructure is only going to help the prospect here.”

    He added: “My goal is to have as many healthy franchises as possible in the league.”

    MORE: Abby Wambach – retiring at year’s end – conquered soccer

    * * *

    There are a few slippery slopes which the NWSL must be mindful of. The league may have unintentionally set a precedent which can’t be matched for future expansion teams. Does the price tag of admission to the NWSL include a major player acquisition? There is only one Alex Morgan and the situation is unique, as sources across the league stress.

    But objectively, Orlando had the leverage to concoct the biggest trade in the league’s history without a single player on its roster. Future expansion teams will recognize this in negotiating their entry into the league. And the Houston Dash, owned by the same group which owns MLS’ Houston Dynamo, will be wondering why they didn’t receive a similarly lucrative deal upon entering the league before the 2014 season. (By purely ironic coincidence, Carrasco was playing for the Dynamo at the time.)

    Retrospectively, Orlando’s interest in bringing in Morgan was clear.

    “You just have to follow Phil Rawlins’ social media accounts to know that there was something going on,” Paulson quipped. Rawlins and Morgan appeared in photos together in August and September.

    And what if Orlando wasn’t backed by an MLS franchise? Surely an independent ownership group wouldn’t have had such leverage. There are significant gaps in resources between MLS-backed women’s teams and those which are run independently, a point which could create a schism as women’s soccer looks to MLS and, more than ever, finds mutual interest there.

    Ultimately, however, mainstream fans and media are likely to forget such logistics surrounding this Morgan trade and view them as minutiae. There is a fourth season on the horizon, something which has never happened in professional women’s soccer in the United States. There are tangible signs of growth – a new team and an extension of the Nike apparel deal through 2019 chief among them – and no signs of teams folding, which plagued previous leagues. For the first time, optimism surrounding women’s soccer surviving in the United States doesn’t sound like head-in-the-clouds hope.

    If and when in five to 10 years, the NWSL is a truly healthy league which isn’t just trying to survive, these past few weeks – with particular emphasis on Morgan’s move to Orlando – will be looked at as seminal moments for the sport. There was hot-stove news – trades, expansion, coaching changes – the kind of stuff sports fans eat, live, sleep and tweet. Fans and media were doing exactly that. Those are, finally, signs of a growing league.

    An icon at the end

    Most every American sports fan and certainly every soccer fan knows where they were on July 10, 2011.

    It isn’t a date which stands out at first glance, but it was one of those rare days of patriotic rallying which can only be produced by a team wearing its country’s colors.

    And it is a date which defines the remarkable career of Abby Wambach, who announced her retirement on Tuesday.

    For 30 minutes, which felt somewhere closer to an eternity for the Americans on the field and in the stands in Dresden, Germany, the reign of the United States as a women’s soccer superpower looked like it was about to come crashing to a halt at the hands of rival Brazil.

    And then, rising above a scrum as she has done for the past 15 years, Wambach got her head on soccer’s equivalent of a Hail Mary, heading it into the net for what was at the time the latest goal ever scored in an international soccer competition. The goal “saved the USA’s life,” as TV commentator Ian Darke put it, forcing penalty kicks – which the Americans won – and the U.S. went on to lose to Japan in the 2011 Women’s World Cup final.

    That goal in the 2011 World Cup quarterfinal sparked a remarkable week in which a women’s soccer team was front-page news across the country. And it’s only fitting that Wambach should spark such a movement. She has the capability of captivating any audience through both her play and through her words.

    Wambach admits to being a loudmouth, something so widely known that it was the subject of one of many of President Barack Obama’s jokes on Tuesday as the U.S. women’s national team visited the White House in honor of their World Cup title.

    On Dec. 16, Wambach will play her final game at the Superdome in New Orleans, La. What lies ahead for her after that is unclear – perhaps still even to Wambach, whose career was publicly in limbo for the past three-plus months. By the sounds of it, she will need to catch up on some relaxing.

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    Abby Wambach is many things. She is the world’s all-time leading international goal-scorer, among both women and men, with 184. She is a two-time Olympic champion, missing the 2008 Games in the United States’ reigning three-peat after breaking her leg in the final exhibition before the team left for Beijing.

    I’ve never seen an athlete more possessed by a single objective: winning a World Cup. Wambach’s desire for what she saw as the crown jewel of her legacy was almost ludicrous given her individual accolades and two Olympic gold medals. But that elusive World Cup trophy kept her hungry.

    “You’re damn right I need it,” she said in May when asked if a World Cup title was needed to help define her not just as a player, but as a person.

    And now Wambach is a World Cup champion. It surely didn’t happen the way she would have envisioned it through all these years. She wasn’t the one heading in that last-gasp goal or scoring a hat trick in the final. Instead, Wambach came off the bench in the final three matches of the World Cup and played only limited minutes as her teammates found a higher gear in the tournament without her.

    But above all things, Abby Wambach is a leader. She always took control of a situation, on and off the field. When she wanted something, there really wasn’t any stopping her. In 2013, she grew so sick of questions about breaking Mia Hamm’s international scoring record that she just wanted to be done with it. With all respect to the record – held by her mentor and idol – she was over all the talk. She had faced questions about it every day. She was three goals shy of tying the record. Speaking to her the day prior, it was clear something special was going to happen.

    So on June 20, 2013, in Harrison, N.J., Wambach went out and scored four goals in one half of soccer and ended all of that wondering. It was the kind of thing you see in one of those small-sided youth soccer games when one kid is way better than all the others. Wambach just wanted it more.

    READ MORE: Wambach announces her retirement at year’s end

    In a World Cup qualifying match in 2010, Wambach split her head open after a head-to-head collision. With blood still pouring out of her forehead like a leaking faucet, Wambach literally had her head stapled on the field. The U.S. was losing – she just had to get back in (that loss to Mexico is the Americans’ only qualifying loss in history).

    Even in postgame media scrums, Wambach took control. She could talk for three minutes without ever actually being asked a question. Wambach loves to talk and she’ll always talk about her team. She’ll even talk too much on the bench. She recently described herself as “the most obnoxious bench player on the planet.”

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    Not everyone always agreed with Abby Wambach. In her final years of playing, she had plenty of detractors who thought that it was time for her to retire and make way for the next generation. Although her scoring production and aerial dominance dissipated in recent years, one thing remains true: There is only one Abby Wambach.

    Talk to most coaches and they will tell you exactly that. Physically, it is hard for most any defender in the world to match up with Wambach.

    And as one friend and colleague has said to me through the years: Wambach could convince you to go to war without knowing why. She speaks persuasively about the most inconsequential of topics. That is why for so long, this United States team was her team. Players young and old listened to her.

    Just as there will never again be a Mia Hamm, who pioneered the first and very talented generation of women’s soccer players in the U.S.; just as there will never again be a Michelle Akers, the tough-as-nails FIFA co-Player of the Century who needed in-game intravenous fluids during that 1999 World Cup triumph, there will never again be another Abby Wambach. She came, she led, and she conquered.

    Going out on top

    Only minutes after winning the 2015 Women’s World Cup title earlier this month, United States national team players were being questioned about their futures.

    That the 2015 Women’s World Cup would mark the end for some United States national team players’ careers seemed inevitable. The U.S. was the oldest of the 24 teams at the tournament, with an average age of more than 29.

    Abby Wambach, 35, had finally won the World Cup in her last attempt. Shannon Boxx did the same at 38. Longtime captain Christie Rampone, playing in her fifth World Cup, won the tournament for the second time after turning 40 during the competition.

    Retirement questions loomed for these legends, but none of them have committed to that finality. Rampone said she will play at the 2016 Rio Olympics “if my body holds up,” and Wambach has dodged all questions regarding her future, saying that she is living in the moment and not yet ready to decide what she will do about the Olympics.

    That leaves 27-year-old Lauren Holiday as the first and, to date, lone player from the team to announce that the 2015 Women’s World Cup would be the end of the competitive road for her. But unlike some of her older teammates, Holiday is in the prime of her career, making the news surprising. Lost amid Carli Lloyd’s otherworldly hat trick in the World Cup final is that Holiday actually scored the eventual game-winning goal in the 5-2 victory, a beautiful volley that she hit in stride after a defensive mistake by Japan.

    Holiday’s decision to exit the game doesn’t stem from a rash decision based on the idea of going out on top. This is something that has long been on her mind.

    “I’ve been praying about it for a couple years now and really just this last year, it was so clear to me,” she said. “I had so much clarity about it. I knew that I wanted to give my all to the World Cup. I wanted to be able to say that I gave it my all to fulfill the final dream of winning the World Cup and I feel like I did that. Even if we wouldn’t have won, I felt very comfortable in my decision. I feel like God had led me to that decision, so I was ready either way.”

    MORE: Title in hand, Holiday set to retire in style

    Holiday will finish the National Women’s Soccer League season with FC Kansas City – the defending champions after her two-assist, MVP performance in last year’s title game – and she will play in the 10-game victory tour with the United States before officially hanging up her boots.

    Her career and her life have thus far been defined by selflessness, and she plans to continue that in a different capacity. She is Christian and she wants to volunteer and help those who are less fortunate. That part of her life isn’t something she could pursue in the hectic day-to-day life of professional sports.

    “I didn’t play for self-glory,” she said. “I played to glorify God and I just feel like I just have other desires on my heart. I want to help in any way that I can in the world. My heart breaks for so many things, so I feel like as awesome of a lifestyle it is, it’s also a very selfish lifestyle. Your schedule is predetermined. I can’t go a day without training or thinking about training and I feel like professional athletics is very you-central and I feel like I was ready to serve other people.”

    Her family is a big part of her decision. She sees her husband – Jrue Holiday, point guard for the NBA’s New Orleans Pelicans – only a few days each month. Holiday lives in Kansas City during the NWSL season, the beginning of which overlaps with the end of the NBA season. From the start six years ago, their relationship has involved distance and long stretches apart. The two met while at UCLA, but Jrue, who just turned 25, was drafted to the Philadelphia 76ers after one season in college.

    Holiday says she is ready for something different – to see her husband and her family and to focus on what’s ahead. She and her teammates miss “the most precious things in life,” she says – the weddings, funerals, births – due to life on the national team. It’s a lifestyle that players choose and one that bonds them together, but it can be taxing.

    Holiday is at the pinnacle of her career, fresh off a World Cup championship. She is a two-time Olympic gold-medalist, having burst onto the international scene in 2008 as the player who replaced injured Abby Wambach on the Olympic roster after Wambach broke her leg. Holiday played under her maiden name, Lauren Cheney, back then.

    She also won the NWSL MVP award in 2013 as the league’s top scorer in a dominant season before last year’s title run. Holiday is capable of accomplishing much more on the field, but her interests are elsewhere now. “There is so much power in a choice,” she says, and after choosing her United States team for the better part of a decade, it’s time for something else.

    “I feel like I could play through another cycle,” Holiday said, referring to the next World Cup in 2019 and then the 2020 Olympics. “I’m confident in my ability. I don’t feel like I have anything to prove, but I also am super-intrigued by the challenge of defining greatness. Obviously, we’ve done a good job of that in the sports world, but I think there’s something so much more than just playing a sport. I want to be able to show women – show the world – that serving other people is also incredible.”

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    Holiday, speaking from the couple’s home in New Orleans, says that Jrue was supportive and neutral throughout the process of making the decision to retire, encouraging her to make the decision for herself.

    Knowing the 2015 World Cup would be his wife’s last major tournament, Jrue Holiday followed the United States around Canada, watching all seven games en route to the team’s triumph. He has played in big games before, but he told NBC SportsWorld that there isn’t “any sporting event that comes close to [the World Cup].”

    Jrue knows Lauren best, and his admiration for her benevolence is palpable.

    “God-fearing, caring, loving,” is how Jrue describes his wife. “I think any and everybody who meets her or comes into contact with her feels it and sees it.

    “She always wants to share and love and help somebody,” he continued. “Obviously, that’s why I love her; she’s done the same thing for me. But to see her do that for any and everybody that she comes in contact with is amazing.”

    Amy Rodriguez has seen that first hand as Holiday’s teammate on the U.S. national team and, for the past two seasons, FC Kansas City. Rodriguez and Holiday live together in Kansas City – along with Rodriguez’s soon-to-be 2-year-old son – and they have frequently been roommates while on the road with the U.S. or in training camps.

    MORE: US women’s team retakes spot atop FIFA rankings

    “It’s a whole history of friendship,” Rodriguez says. “What I can tell you about her is she has the biggest heart and she’s one of the best teammates I’ve ever had. I’m going to miss that a lot, but she definitely is more than just a teammate to me. She helped me raise my son last year in Kansas City and she’s been in my life for some big decisions and some up-and-down moments, so I’m very grateful to have her in my life.”

    Holiday said she will most cherish the friendships and the journey she’s had, which began with the United States national team at the senior level in 2007, while she was still at UCLA. Her journey on the field for the United States team is emblematic of her willingness to put others – including her team – first. Holiday started her senior career as a forward before moving back into an attacking midfield role. She ends her time with the U.S. even farther back on the field, as a deep-lying midfielder in front of the defense. That shift has helped her mature on and off the field, she says, and it taught her a valuable lesson:

    “Just to accept the role that you’re given and put the team before yourself,” Holiday said. “If I think about any legacy that I would want to leave, it would be that I put others before myself and I put the team before myself. The journey has been quite the ride.”

    Putting others before herself. That is still Holiday’s plan, just in a new way.

    Predicting Carli Lloyd

    VANCOUVER, British Columbia – James Galanis had drafted a text message for Carli Lloyd on Sunday morning, a few hours ahead of the 2015 Women’s World Cup final.

    Galanis is Lloyd’s personal trainer and the person whom the U.S. midfielder credits for turning around her career. He exchanges text messages with Lloyd every day, but on Sunday, Galanis decided not to press the “Send” button.

    “He started texting me that I would score three goals today, and he deleted it because he thought that I was just going to be focused on scoring three goals and not just letting it happen,” Lloyd told NBC SportsWorld on Monday, after a few hours of sleep and many hours of celebrations.

    It turns out, Galanis was prophetic. A few hours after deleting that text message, Lloyd went out and put forth the single most dominant display in the history of a Women’s World Cup final – the sport’s highest stage – scoring three goals in the first 16 minutes to propel the United States to an emphatic 5-2 victory over Japan. The Women’s World Cup title was the United States’ third, the most of any country.

    But Galanis did send his usual email to Lloyd that day, just as he does before every major tournament and before every tournament final. In a decision that speaks to the intricate understanding of player and personal coach, Galanis knew that just the usual email would suffice on Sunday.

    The email read as follows:

    Ms Lloyd. I have spent a lot of time reflecting and the thing that sticks out the most to me is that you are once again going into this final as the best Carli Lloyd there ever was.

    You have broken barriers again and gone to a level that no one was expecting and are on the brink of shocking the world again. 

    Today you will rise again because:

    1) Apart from being the best Carli Lloyd ever, you are going into this game loaded with a confident mental state.

    2) Because you are going into this game knowing you haven’t achieved anything yet and you will once again fight like an underdog that never gives up and claws her way to the top. 

    3) Because tactically you are playing in a position that allows you to express yourself and get into positions to win the game all on your own. 

    4) Because the Japanese rely on shapes rather then [sic] pressure and this will allow you to showcase the marvelous skill you posses [sic] and stick a dagger into the folks that dared to call you unskilled. 

    5) Because you are the only player that can take a game and own it.

    6) Because you are the most intimidating and feared player on the planet and the Japanese know it.

    Time to make this World Cup yours.

    And that is exactly what Carli Lloyd did on that hazy afternoon in Vancouver: She made this World Cup hers, which was always the plan.

    Lloyd, who turns 33 years old this month, is no stranger to the big stage: she is the only man or woman in history to score the gold-medal winning goal in two consecutive Olympics, sealing the 2008 and 2012 titles for the United States. She also experienced the heartbreak of the 2011 World Cup final, a penalty-kick loss to Japan in which Lloyd missed one of the spot-kicks, skying the ball over the bar.

    Seven years before that moment, in 2004, Lloyd nearly quit the sport. She had been cut from the United States’ U-21 national team and she was out of shape and lacking motivation. That’s when she connected with Galanis, who saw a player with raw talent in need of some guidance.

    “I used to see her and think, ‘This girl’s going to waste her talent,’” Galanis told NBC SportsWorld last October.

    With Galanis’ help, however, Lloyd hasn’t wasted a moment in a very long time. Sunday’s performance was record-smashing. She became the first woman to record a hat trick in a World Cup final; her opening goal, in the 3rd minute, was the fastest in World Cup final history. She was also the first American to score in four straight World Cup matches, finishing the tournament with six goals after coming alive in the knockout stage.

    Like so many elite world athletes, Lloyd visualizes success. She sees it every day when she sleeps, when she eats, when she walks around. At times during this World Cup it has been difficult for Lloyd to sleep. She was imagining herself lacing one of those trademark, driven shots. She envisioned those moments that she would beat a defender, just as Lloyd did with force when she beat a Japanese player to the ball on her first goal Sunday, and as she did so casually when she touched the ball past a defender before scoring her third and most spectacular goal from midfield.

    “These last few nights leading up to the final, I caught myself just constantly thinking about it,” Lloyd told NBC SportsWorld on Monday. “I just had chills. [I] was super excited, super anxious and I would wake up, I’d roll around in bed a little bit and I’d catch myself dreaming about it again. Mentally, you need to be so switched on and for me, I think that was the biggest difference.”

    Part of Lloyd’s way of focusing is to go into her own space, isolated from family, friends and any potential distractions. Her family doesn’t travel to major tournaments, instead giving Lloyd the mental freedom and space she desires. One of her aunts, two cousins and a friend actually broke the unwritten rule on Sunday and were in the stadium for the final, but they didn’t tell Lloyd until after the game. Lloyd’s fiancé, Brian, was going to come to the final after staying home for the entire tournament, but he changed plans and watched Sunday’s game from New Jersey, “because he thought that we wouldn’t get married if he showed up,” Lloyd said jokingly.

    Before the start of the World Cup, Lloyd was on a field in Medford, N.J., running sprints with her headphones in. It is a field she has trained on since she started playing soccer over 25 years ago. She still trains there regularly with Galanis, working on her game while in between national team camps or away from her professional team, the Houston Dash.

    On that spring day, Lloyd envisioned playing in another World cup final. She imagined scoring four goals in that (at the time hypothetical) World Cup final. Lloyd almost scored a fourth in the opening half-hour on Sunday in a performance that might be best described as that of a player possessed.

    Galanis, however, was correct again on Sunday (“He’s pretty much predicted everything to this point,” Lloyd says of Galanis’ reading of her career): Lloyd would score three times on the day, etching her name into the folklore of the most prestigious women’s soccer program in the world.

    After the epic final, Lloyd called Galanis, who has been in Greece on vacation (even he doesn’t come to major tournaments). Galanis’ first words on the phone were those of a coach who always knew what his player was capable of:

    “I told you so,” he said.

    USA’s backbone

    VANCOUVER, British Columbia – This destination was always the one the United States women’s national team planned on, but the journey to here has been much different than expected.

    On Sunday, the U.S. plays Japan in the 2015 Women’s World Cup final, a rematch of the 2011 final which Japan won in penalty kicks.

    The Americans’ presence in Sunday’s final is nothing extraordinary by their lofty expectations; they have never finished worse than third at any of the previous six World Cups. But getting back to this final is actually a mild surprise based on the way the team was playing in the buildup to the World Cup.

    Julie Johnston is the story of the tournament and one of the most miraculous, meteoric rises in history. Nine months ago, she had just been cut from the United States’ World Cup qualifying roster. She wasn’t as fit as she needed to be and she wasn’t mentally prepared for the international level, she said recently. “At moments, I didn’t believe in myself as strongly as some others, including Jill,” Johnston said. But the 23-year-old center back upped her training and waited for her turn, which came in March due to injuries to longtime captain Christie Rampone and fellow defender Whitney Engen. She has been so spectacular alongside center back Becky Sauerbrunn that Rampone never managed to earn back her spot

    “Opportunity presented itself with some injuries, so now she’s getting started in big games,” U.S. coach Jill Ellis said. “And she’s risen to the level.”

    Johnston entered this tournament having played only 12 matches for the United States, but now she is one of eight finalists for the Golden Ball, given to the best player at the World Cup. Sauerbrunn and Johnston have shown over the course of six games at this tournament that they are currently the best center back pairing in the world.

    MORE: USA-Japan World Cup Final a familiar matchup

    Defense wasn’t expected to be what would carry this U.S. team through the World Cup – not on a team with Abby Wambach, Alex Morgan and the depth that is so often spoken of. Defense, however, has been the difference. The U.S. hasn’t given up a goal in 513 minutes – the second-longest streak in Women’s World Cup history – and it isn’t because goalkeeper Hope Solo has been forced to bail out her team. The back four has clamped down on opposing teams, giving up only one goal in the opening half-hour of the tournament.

    The United States’ defense wasn’t an overnight success, but it was an expedited process that only saw the unit come together over the past two months and after growing pains in the spring. The Americans lost to Brazil in December, a couple weeks after losing their world No. 1 ranking for the first time in almost seven years. They got outclassed by a spectacular France team in February, drew with lowly Iceland in March and looked less than convincing against inferior opponents in May. They didn’t look like a team that was about to march to a World Cup final, especially knowing that either Germany or France would likely stand in the way in the semifinals.

    And then everything started to click at the World Cup. Sauerbrunn assumed the leadership role. Johnston began playing beyond her years. Ali Kreiger and Meghan Klingenberg clamped down the flanks.

    “I think that as a unit, it takes a little bit of time to jell,” Sauerbrunn said. “You’re not four individuals back there, your unit – it really depends on everyone’s level of comfort and chemistry around them, so I think that we finally found the right chemistry and the right people. And it also takes time. We needed to play teams like France and lose to be able to see where our weak spots were and to work on it, and I think with all the results, we’ve gotten better and better, especially with the losses, because you learn the most from that.”

    Finding success this quickly – together as a unit and individually for Johnston – on this big of a stage is staggering.

    Sauerbrunn only played in one World Cup match prior to this tournament, despite turning 30 on the first day of the competition. Her being snubbed from the Golden Ball aside, she’s been the United States’ best and most consistent player at this World Cup.

    MORE: Johnston hails team’s resilience, togetherness after reaching World Cup Final

    “In terms of her performance, I’m not going to single people out, but I think she’s been a major, major reason why we’ve been so steady at the back and so good at cutting things off,” Ellis said.

    Johnston is the U.S. defender singled out by FIFA for the Golden Ball, but Sauerbrunn has been the glue to the team’s shutout streak. The intricacies of her skillset often go unnoticed due to how subtle and easy she makes things look. Sauerbrunn plays a cerebral game, positioning herself perfectly so that she doesn’t have to be reactionary.

    “I know that I’m not the fastest, or the strongest, or the best in the air,” she said. “So from a very early age I had to be positionally sound or I was going to get beat. So you just kind of learn as you go and luckily I’ve had amazing coaches like [former U-19 U.S. soccer coach] Mark Krikorian and [Steve] Swanson, who really emphasized positioning on defense.”

    Those who are just starting to pay attention on Sunday – with the U.S. now one win from their first World Cup title since 1999 – will see the headlines about Wambach’s last World Cup and Carli Lloyd’s three goals in the last three games after coming alive thanks to a formation change. Many U.S. fans would have expected the United States to make the Women’s World Cup final thanks to all the star power possessed.

    The defense has been the one constant for the United States at this World Cup. Ellis tried all five of her forwards at some point. The midfield was poor to start the tournament before coming alive in the quarterfinal and semifinal following tactical changes. Wambach’s role has been reduced over the past two games. Morgan didn’t play for two months due to injury heading into this World Cup. Ellis’ tactical decisions were constantly under fire.

    To say that there were objective doubts about this team heading into and even early in the tournament would be an understatement.

    So the quick development of the partnership between Johnston and Sauerbrunn to become the United States’ most important players is the big reason that the U.S. is in position to win the World Cup. On Tuesday, Johnston called Sauerbrunn her “backbone.” Both players are exactly that for the United States, even if that wasn’t necessarily the planned path to this destination.

    Ellis’ Island

    MONTREAL – Having too many options is always a good problem to have, but it leaves Jill Ellis with some tough decisions that will go a long way in deciding the next Women’s World Cup champion.

    The U.S. women’s national team coach finally hit all the right notes in her lineup choices on Friday against China. The 1-0 quarterfinal victory might not look overly convincing on paper, but it was the United States’ most complete and most energetic performance of the tournament.

    On Tuesday, she faces the heightened challenge of pushing the right buttons against the world’s No. 1-ranked team, Germany, in a World Cup semifinal.

    Ellis doesn’t like talking about formations; she chooses to discuss “roles” within a system – the No. 6 (holding midfielder, a sore subject among U.S. followers) or the playmaking No. 10, for example. So to speculate on the formation she might employ is soccer’s version of Russian roulette.

    Ellis didn’t make wholesale changes against China, but the decision to free up midfielder Carli Lloyd in a more attacking role paid huge dividends. Morgan Brian, 22, sat in behind Lloyd to sweep in front of the United States’ staunch back line, which hasn’t conceded a goal in an astounding 423 minutes.

    “Freedom” was the word Lloyd consistently used to describe her role on Friday. It’s a freedom for which she thirsts and one which she hasn’t experienced in four games alongside Lauren Holiday, who was suspended for the quarterfinal due to yellow card accumulation. Sticking with Brian in the middle on Tuesday would again free up Lloyd, but it would likely mean the much more experienced Holiday moving to the bench. Brian is 22 years old and a U-20 World Cup champion, as has been touted by Ellis and company throughout the tournament. But is she ready for what’s likely to be a bruising USA-Germany semifinal?

    That question circles back to the endless debate regarding the United States’ lack of a true defensive midfielder (the No. 6), but that’s a tired topic within U.S. circles and one that isn’t going to change. Shannon Boxx is the best suited for such a No. 6 role, but she turned 38 years old on Monday, has only played 16 minutes this tournament and has been nursing a slight quad issue (while still practicing). Boxx is most likely to see action in the final minutes to help the U.S. close out a game, as she did against Nigeria in the group stage.

    So where does Ellis go from here?

    USA vs. Germany: Watch a Spanish livestream at 6:30 p.m. ET

    Her biggest dilemma is in the center of the park, where Lloyd and Holiday both want to push higher into the attack and are both best-suited in a more forward role. “Heck yeah,” Holiday said of her enjoyment of playing higher in the midfield in the final minutes against Colombia. The joy was palpable.

    But together, Lloyd and Holiday have struggled to find any sort of rhythm alternating between the role.

    I asked Ellis on Monday whether or not Holiday and Lloyd could co-exist in dual attacking roles. Her response was coy. “We’ll figure it out,” she said, adding in a wink.

    Lloyd, Holiday and Brian could, in theory, all be on the field at once with the U.S. playing a hybrid 4-5-1 or 4-4-1-1, allowing Lloyd or Holiday to push on while the other sits underneath with Brian. That’s something similar to what Ellis tried in a match against Brazil last December and again at the end of the victory over Colombia and it would be the only way to get all three players on the field without forcing Brian into an uncomfortable wide role. That may be a risk Ellis will have to take.

    “They are both attacking personalities,” Ellis added. “It’s pick and choose the moments, because obviously Germany is a tremendous transition team, so it’s that measure and that balance. But yeah, I think we would like to get them involved in our attack if possible.”

    The U.S.'s midfield formation against Colombia.
    The U.S.’s midfield formation against Colombia.


    But France found success against Germany in a flat 4-4-2. Amandine Henry controlled the middle of the park and winger Louisa Necib tucked in defensively to account for Germany’s numbers advantage in the middle.

    France's wide players tucked in defensively against Germany.
    France’s wide players tucked in defensively against Germany.


    Such a system is a mirror image of the U.S. setup, so France may have provided the Americans with something of a blueprint against Germany. The U.S. has often throughout this tournament asked its wide midfielder to tuck in centrally on defense against teams that have a numbers advantage in the midfield. Australia and Colombia in particular gave the U.S. trouble due to that.

    Ellis and her players say they expect Tuesday’s semifinal to be a transition game – a style with which they assimilated themselves in the group stage – and for there to be room on the flanks.

    “Germany does well in their attack,” U.S. forward Alex Morgan said. “But I think their back line, they are physical, but I think they can be vulnerable in the outside spaces behind the back line, so it’s going to be a lot of flank play again, like Kelley O’Hara provided (against China).” Morgan also said that she liked having a central midfielder higher up the field.

    MORE: USA vs. Germany will be final before Final  |  Krieger faces familiar foe

    But her point about flank play leads to Ellis’ second big issue: the wide midfielders. Megan Rapinoe will certainly slide back into a starting role after being suspended for Friday’s quarterfinal. She has been the team’s best attacking player this tournament.

    Kelley O’Hara brought a needed energy on the flank against China. The U.S. finally employed a high-pressure system that forced China into mistakes and saw the U.S. take the initiative. The U.S. likes to be on the front foot.

    “(We like) pressing teams. What the U.S. does best — and you look back at the history of all the teams — it’s pressing,” Lloyd said. “It’s putting teams on their heels. We don’t want to give teams respect. We don’t want to make teams feel that we are nervous. We want to make teams nervous.”

    Similarly, France pressed Germany high and saw rewards for it. The French left fullback Amel Majri was often high up the field to apply pressure, a role that U.S. left fullback Meghan Klingenberg is more than capable of playing.

    France LB Majri pushes high up the pitch against Germany.
    France LB Majri pushes high up the pitch against Germany.


    Did the speedy O’Hara do enough to earn herself a second consecutive start? Or will Ellis stick with Tobin Heath, who provides more of a 1-v-1 attacking presence? O’Hara is likely to provide more defensive cover.

    And up top, there is the ever-present elephant in the room: Will Abby Wambach start? Ellis chose to line up Amy Rodriguez alongside Morgan in the quarterfinals and Rodriguez was a significant reason for the more energized U.S. performance. But Rodriguez didn’t take her chances in front of net, and Ellis said on Monday that two areas of focus for the U.S. against Germany are the aerial battle and the middle of the park. Wambach is the world’s all-time leading scorer, netting almost half of her 183 international goals with her head. Wambach will also be fresh after only playing the final few minutes against China, but she wouldn’t provide the type of defensive pressure that Rodriguez would in a high-pressure system.

    Ellis’ decisions are likely to take a leading role in how this battle of the world’s top two teams shakes out. A 4-4-2 with Lloyd and Holiday in the middle of the park seems like the house bet for that critical area, but O’Hara and Heath both have a case on the wings and whether or not Wambach starts will dictate how direct the U.S. plays and how high up the field the Americans press.

    Ellis says she doesn’t look at the news or social media, choosing instead to stay in the “bubble” to which she so often refers.

    “In terms of pressure, I think that you don’t go into a job like this knowing that the expectations are nothing but high, right? I don’t lose sleep about the games and such because this is the environment I chose to be in. If I didn’t choose it, I wouldn’t be able to do it.”

    Tuesday’s game will be her most-pressure packed yet. Her decisions will be game-changers and perhaps game-winners if she gets them right, but as France found out in the quarterfinals, just winning the tactical battle against Germany isn’t good enough if scoring chances aren’t finished in front of net. The U.S. has been happy to win regardless of the style of play. At the end of Tuesday, the result is all that will matter.

    As Abby goes …

    OTTAWA, Ontario – Gliding through the air, Abby Wambach buried the game-winning goal against Nigeria on June 16 to ensure the United States finished atop Group D heading into the knockout stage of the Women’s World Cup.

    BC Place in Vancouver erupted and Wambach blacked out. “I literally don’t know what happened after we scored,” Wambach said after the game. She scored the goal with her foot – maybe even the bottom of her shin; she wasn’t quite sure – instead of her head, the body part with which she has scored 77 of her world-record 183 international goals.

    The moment, however, was still a familiar one: Wambach scoring the game-winner for the U.S. in a World Cup match, electrifying the sellout, partisan crowd and rallying her teammates after yet another slow start to the match (seconds later, the halftime whistle blew).

    Nostalgia has been omnipresent for the United States at this World Cup – Wambach’s role, the 4-4-2 formation, playing against Pia Sundhage. The trend continues on Friday against China in the quarterfinals with a rematch of the 1999 World Cup final, the last time the U.S. won the tournament.

    Yet it’s been an underwhelming World Cup for the United States, despite their advancement to the quarterfinals (the U.S. has never fallen short of the semifinals in six previous World Cups). Sorting out the spacing in the midfield and finishing opportunities are two of the largest issues.

    Wambach has struggled at times, as well. Too much is on her shoulders, even if she embraces the pressure. More than ever before, Wambach is the pulse of this U.S. team both on and off the field. She’s at the center of the huddles instructing her teammates, she steps up to face the tough questions – even if not everyone likes her answers – in the face of increased criticism. And make no mistake, she loves all of that. She embraces her role as a central figure to the sport.

    MORE: USWNT feared no more | Meet Dawn Scott, the secret to everything

    But having such a visible presence in the tournament has also drawn the ire of many neutral fans, annoyed with Wambach for blaming her lack of scoring on the artificial turf and then later suggesting that the referee “purposefully” awarded yellow cards to Rapinoe and Holiday. Wambach apologized the following day, just barely getting her out of trouble (more on that in a bit).

    Headline-worthy material is great for bringing attention to the sport. Wambach gets that. “Now that people are more on board toward the beginning part of the tournament, they want to analyze, hyper-analyze and break things down, which for me, I’m all about, because I love it,” she said earlier in the tournament. “I love reading everything everybody has to say. I don’t think that everybody is right in everything that they say, but the reality is that we’re talking about the game and those are really good conversations to be had.”

    All of that extra-curricular activity may not be great for this U.S. team, however.

    U.S. players speak often of staying in their “bubble” and away from criticisms lobbed at them from the outside world, but distractions are too plentiful in this digital age to be entirely avoided. In fact, distractions are everywhere for the world’s most scrutinized team.

    Wambach’s comments exacerbate those issues. Her jab at referee Stephanie Frappart nearly cost Wambach a chance at playing in Friday’s match. The U.S. forward said after Monday’s round-of-16 victory over Colombia that she thought Frappart “purposefully” awarded yellow cards to midfielders Lauren Holiday and Megan Rapinoe, knowing that it would get each player suspended. Wambach swiftly apologized the next day, and on Thursday FIFA’s Disciplinary Committee issued her a warning but chose not to suspend her. Imagine Wambach — whose sole purpose for so long has been to win the World Cup — missing a quarterfinal match because she spoke out about a ref in a match her team won anyway. The fallout for that talk would have been cataclysmic, crossing the threshold from distraction to downright detrimental.

    On the field, Wambach’s role remains a central question which Ellis must address. Will she start against China? Is she fit to start on three days of rest? “I think she’d be ready to go for 90 minutes if asked and if it happens,” Ellis said Thursday.

    Coming into this World Cup, many expected Wambach to start some matches but possibly come off the bench more often than not. Yet with scoring at a premium and Ellis in search of options, Wambach started three of the first four matches, playing 271 of a possible 360 minutes. That’s more than most expected Wambach to play thus far, but “probably right on” for Ellis’ pre-tournament expectations, the coach said Thursday.

    “In terms of Abby, very much so, I look at what an opponent presents,” Ellis said Thursday. “Abby has some unique tools. The decision against Colombia is that we felt again on set pieces and balls in the box, we could have a very good chance in the air with her presence. I look at China and what they present and what tools they have to try and be successful and break them down. That’s kind of how I approach it.”

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    Wambach was spectacular with her feet – not her head – against Nigeria, checking back into the midfield to hold the ball up and combine in a way that nobody else on the U.S. team was willing to do. Her goal in that match was the difference, but it remains her lone tally of the tournament (she’s one short of tying Marta for the most in Women’s World Cup history).

    Signature Abby moments seem more irregular. Her scoring against the world’s best teams has declined significantly over the past few years. She has struggled with her timing in the air and her missed penalty kick against Colombia on Monday momentarily looked like it would exacerbate the team’s scoring woes.

    At stake this tournament is Wambach’s legacy. She speaks openly about her all-consuming desire to win the tournament. “You’re damn right I need it,” she said of the World Cup earlier this month.

    “It’s all that I’m thinking about, all that’s on my mind,” she said. “It’s the thing that I haven’t been able to be a part of, I haven’t won yet. It’s something that I know that all of us have to be willing to be forever disappointed in not winning. Because that’s what it takes. You have to completely give in to it. You have to really allow yourself to be crushed by something. It’s like love. And if we give into it, if all of us give into it, then I think we could have a chance at this.”

    Her relentless pursuit of greatness is unmistakably commendable. But the U.S. is learning that desire is no longer the chief ingredient for success; everyone has desire. And Ellis has tough decisions to make regarding how to use Wambach.

    “I just know Abby. I know big moments, she’ll deliver,” Ellis said after that Nigeria victory.

    That theory will be put to the test again on Friday, and even more so next week, should the U.S. advance. There has been plenty to talk about at this World Cup, but come July 5, the only talking point domestically will revolve around whether or not the U.S., likely led by Wambach, has emerged on top.

    No Maybes: US feared no more

    EDMONTON, Alberta – There’s nothing particularly unusual about the United States and China meeting in the knockout stage of a Women’s World Cup.

    They did so most famously in the 1999 World Cup final, which the Americans won in penalty kicks after a scoreless draw through extra time. Both programs are among those with the richest history in women’s soccer, even if China has never hoisted a major trophy.

    China and the U.S. have played 51 times, second-most among any opponent for the United States. But both enter Friday’s quarterfinal at the 2015 Women’s World Cup far removed from those glory days of 1999. The U.S. hasn’t won the World Cup since then, coming closest in 2011, when it lost the final to Japan in penalty kicks.

    China is back in the quarterfinals after a decline in talent saw the team miss out on the World Cup for the first time in 2011. Following their round-of-16 victory over Cameroon, China’s players and coaches said that they had already met their objective for the 2015 World Cup by getting to the quarterfinals, exemplifying just how different expectations are from World Cups past in the world’s most populous nation.

    So the paths of China and the United States intersect on Friday at the crossroads of the evolving landscape of women’s soccer. Like a snowplow taming a wintery highway, parity has pushed through a once seemingly impenetrable road on which only a select few teams traveled every four years. Once idle women’s soccer programs are seeing the light.

    While the Americans can claim three straight Olympic gold medals, they haven’t won the World Cup since that fabled day at the Rose Bowl in 1999. The World Cup has been elusive for the Americans as the landscape of women’s soccer has grown more competitive through the years.

    As primary gatekeepers of the world’s elite clique, the United States faces more scrutiny than ever for long-stymied youth development and a lack of tactical and technical evolution. The American Way, as it’s often described – a persevering ability based largely around athleticism and a will to win – has been enough to keep the U.S. women near the top to date. They have never finished worse than third at a World Cup and they own four of the five all-time Olympic gold medals in the sport, taking the silver medal on the only other occasion.

    But cracks in the foundation have been evident for a while. A miracle goal – credit to The American Way – saved the U.S. from a quarterfinal exit at the last World Cup. Abby Wambach headed in Megan Rapinoe’s version of a Hail Mary for the latest goal in World Cup history to send that match to penalty kicks, where the U.S. beat Brazil.

    And even on Monday in the newly implemented Round of 16, the U.S. was largely held in check through 45 minutes by a Colombia team who four years ago made its debut on the world stage with a wide-eyed group of teenagers. The Americans looked a distant cry from dominant against Colombia before goalkeeper Catalina Perez was sent off, reducing Colombia to 10 players and hamstringing any realistic ability for the South Americans to win the game.

    Colombia wasn’t the United States’ only opponent on Monday; evolution was (no, the referee wasn’t the other). The U.S. women’s program, surrounded by constant tactical scrutiny and pundits, finds itself somewhere in flux as it tries desperately to hold onto its once dominant form.

    Players say their best is yet to come at this World Cup, and that they still haven’t reached their peak.

    “It’s going to come,” U.S. midfielder Carli Lloyd said after Monday’s win, in which she scored from on a penalty kick. “We keep telling everybody we haven’t peaked yet, and we still have a few more games to go for that.”

    [nbcsports_mpx url=]

    It’s a refrain that echoed throughout Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium on Monday night, but there’s an increasing wonder of when – or if – that summit will be reached. Twice in the past four years, a very similarly structured U.S. team had little trouble with Colombia, winning 3-0 in the group stages of the 2011 World Cup and the 2012 Olympics.

    Nigeria’s weak defense and suspect goalkeeping in the final group match were thought to be the point at which the U.S. offense could get going. But instead, the Americans grinded out a 1-0 victory against another team that ended the match with 10 players.

    Friday’s opponent will be far more defensively organized.

    China’s reemergence out of the abyss comes on the heels of newly implemented initiatives to get more girls in the country playing soccer. A lack of a youth system hampered development and created a lost generation for the program in the past decade.

    Only about 6,000 to 7,000 females above age 12 are registered soccer players in a country of 1.4 billion people, according to the New York Times. A one-child policy in the country further complicates which sports parents push their children toward.

    The legacy of China’s 1999 team – which came inches from winning the World Cup, only to be denied by a goal-line clearance by Kristine Lilly in extra time – lives on with this current, young China team, which features players who were mostly not even teenagers for those glory days. Long gone is FIFA co-player of the century Sun Wen, who pioneered that generation.

    And while the ferocity of the USA-China rivalry may have quelled over the past decade – in large part due to China’s great decline – the opportunity to upset the U.S. isn’t lost on the current generation.

    “At that time I was 10 years old and I woke up the next day and read the news that China lost to the United States,” said China defender Han Peng of the 1999 final. “I felt so disappointed. I thought to myself, if I were given the opportunity in the future, I will beat them. Now I am presented with this opportunity.”

    This Chinese team hardly has the clout of the one that was a perennial contender in the 1990s, but much like their predecessors, these players base their play on team-first, defensively disciplined principles. China earned the nickname, “The Steel Roses,” in the 1990s for their fearless performances. An upset of the Americans on Friday, just over the U.S. border in Ottawa, could put this team in the conversation with that 1999 team.

    “It would be the re-blooming of the Steel Roses,” Han said.

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    Cameroon coach Enow Ngachu hailed China’s defensive organization after his team’s round-of-16 loss, stating that it was even better than that of current world champions Japan, whom debutantes Cameroon narrowly lost to in the group stage. Asked if China could beat the mighty U.S. in the quarterfinals, Ngachu said: “Of course, the Chinese defend very well. They have one of the best defenses in this tournament.”

    Continued defensive prowess will be paramount for China on Friday, but with the pressure off and the pre-tournament objectives already achieved, China expects to play more carefree soccer, putting the onus on the Americans.

    “We are already in the quarterfinal, which means we have already obtained our initial objective, so we just need to go as far as we can. No more pressure,” said Wang Shanshan, who scored the winning goal against Cameroon.

    Pressure is something the U.S. has long thrived off of, but the response in this tournament has been different. The group stage was marked by nervy, tentative soccer – “tight” play, as longtime captain Christie Rampone put it last week – and Monday’s effort against Colombia hardly looked like a loose one.

    There is a burden on this U.S. team that only Germany – a potential semifinal opponent – really carries with it: Win or fail. There are no grey areas for the Americans — #NoMaybes, as the social media campaign states.

    A U.S. loss to China on Friday would be historic, no doubt, but shocking would be an overstatement given the way the tournament has trended. This is a world where there is no longer fear of the U.S. team, a world in which coaches and players from off-the-radar Iceland, Ireland and Colombia take shots at the U.S. team for its tactics, lack of creativity and lack of heart (so said the Colombians). This is a world where the once obedient drivers behind the pace cars realize that they too can have a go at the front of the pack.

    “Nothing is definitive in soccer,” Han said. “Anything is possible. If they want to become the champions, they have to beat us first.”

    Bring it on: an attitude that United States opponents are more frequently embracing.

    The Secret to Everything

    EDMONTON, Alberta – “What if?” isn’t a thought that crosses Dawn Scott’s mind.

    Scott, the United States women’s national team’s strength and fitness coach, covers all the bases when it comes to her players. Her knowledge of all 23 players on the World Cup roster is intimate. She knows what players are eating, how well hydrated they are and how much sleep they are getting. More than their agents, their teammates or even their spouses, Scott knows all the measurables of the daily lives of these players, with whom she speaks daily.

    “Dawn is, like, the secret to everything,” summarizes an exuberant Christie Rampone. Rampone would qualify as an authority on such matters; she turns 40 in less than a week and is playing in her fifth World Cup.

    Scott’s secret is in “marginal gains,” a concept that the Newcastle, England, native picked up years ago from Team Great Britain Cycling. It’s an idea rooted in minutiae, that the smallest of things could make the greatest of impacts in the grand scheme, especially if micromanaged from player to player. It’s the 0.01 percent in which Scott and the rest of the U.S. Soccer staff operate.

    And it is that 0.01 percent that could be the difference as the U.S. tries to win its first Women’s World Cup in 16 years.

    “Can you look at 20 different areas, and if you can make a marginal gain in each area, suddenly you’ve made a five percent improvement in each player,” Scott said. “So it’s kind of been brainstorming, all the staff, and then pulling that all together to then produce some of these machines.”

    Scott’s lines of communication are open with the players, the coaching staff and the medical staff, led by head athletic trainer Rick Guter. Scott is something of the middle woman between the players and head coach Jill Ellis, keeping tabs on physical progress in order to help the coaching staff prepare for a match.

    Behind the scenes is very much where Scott works, but listen even for a few moments to players and coaches talk and you can see just how many different parts of the team she touches. Scott helped give the green-light on Alex Morgan’s fitness level for Tuesday’s game against Nigeria, Morgan’s first-ever World Cup start (she has seven appearances off the bench) and first start in over two months due to a bone bruise in her left knee. Ellis said after the game that the plan was to have Morgan start by the knockout stage of the tournament, but the 25-year-old striker was ahead of schedule.

    And don’t look now, but 35-year-old Abby Wambach, who by all indications was going to be coming off the bench and rotating into the lineup, played the full 90 minutes in two of the first three matches of the tournament.

    “Our fitness coach does a tremendous job,” Ellis said after Tuesday’s win over Nigeria, a 1-0 triumph thanks to Wambach’s goal. “I would say Abby is at her peak fitness. Tonight I knew I wanted to get 90 (minutes) out of her and we did that. We’ll work hard on recovery.”

    Scott’s job is holistic. She is both proactive and reactive, monitoring players to best predict performance and working with the medical staff

    “If you can make her less tight or stronger in a certain muscle group or area, then is that going to make Alex Morgan faster on the field?” Scott wonders aloud. “That is part of it. The other piece is then if you can alleviate any areas of tightness or weakness or range of motion, then suddenly your players are stronger and fitter, they are more resilient in games and over multiple games.”

    Morgan said she felt fast in her 66 minutes on the field on Tuesday. “I’ll have to ask the fitness coach about the GPS to see if I really was,” she said after the game.

    Each player is monitored individually. Long gone are the days, still so prevalent in the college game, when a thick workout packet got mailed out to the entire U.S. team with the same mundane sprint workouts and lifting drills to follow in the offseason. U.S. players get those packets, but each one looks different for every player now.

    Then there is the dreaded beep test, a team-wide competition involving a series of short sprints set to a beeping timer. Miss the beep and you’re out; last one standing is the most fit. There are also hydration tests in the mornings, heart-rate monitors and GPS used to track players’ mileage.

    Even in the middle of a World Cup, players are training differently. On days after a match, reserves and starters will separate for portions of practice in order to suit their particular needs. Scott runs the warm-ups, making sure everyone stretches properly. Players who went 90 minutes might need some rest. Reserves who haven’t played may need to be put through strenuous fitness training sessions so that in the event they are called upon later in the tournament, they aren’t winded and out of shape.

    “The open communication and the trust that we have in Dawn I think helps,” Rampone says, “because you could be a reserve that may lie because you don’t want her to think you’re sore, but that’s what makes it. She’s real. The communication is there, so we can get stronger and better individually.”

    Nutrition is part of the equation, too. The U.S. women have their own chef on the road with them during the World Cup to meet their individual dietary needs. No buffet lines here. Rampone is a perfect example of why no two players should eat the same. She recently switched to a gluten-free diet to “eat to [her] blood type.”

    All of these things are harmonized: the fitness, the nutrition, the medicine – they all add up to the big picture, which consists of seven games (should the Americans make the final) in 30 days at the highest level of competition, and on artificial turf this time. It’s a grueling stretch, even on the most physically fit of bodies.

    The United States always has been and still is — perhaps more than ever — a tournament team. Is this the most technical and skilled team in the world? The jury is out. They are among them, no doubt. But “The American Way” has long been one of physical and mental superiority over opponents. And while Canada coach John Herdman is similarly detail-oriented and the Australians utilize sports science, the U.S. still appears to be on another level with fitness and their attention to those details.

    None of these pieces may necessarily tangibly show on the field, but together the thought is that the nutritional shakes, the recovery drinks, the extra sprints and everything else add up when it counts.

    If Wambach is a millimeter off on that famous header against Brazil in 2011, the United States flops out of the tournament in historic, tragic fashion in the quarterfinals. The U.S. has never fallen short of the semifinals at the World Cup, winning it twice.

    If Morgan’s header a year later rises just a fraction higher, the U.S. goes to penalty kicks against Canada in the Olympic semifinals, and who knows what would have happened? The Americans are now three-time reigning Olympic gold medalists, winners of four of five all-time Olympic competitions and silver-medalists on the other occasion.

    This, like all of sport, is a game of inches. Marginal gains could be the difference to winning a World Cup.