This week marks the beginning of the 2018 SheBelieves Cup. The third edition of the invitational tournament, SheBelieves brings together four of the top teams in women's soccer in an early-season round robin tune-up.
For all four competitors -- the United States, England, Germany, and France -- SheBelieves is becoming an important warm-up opportunity in advance of more high-stakes fixtures. All three European teams begin their World Cup Qualifying campaigns this summer, meaning that this tournament offers a chance to work out some kinks and get the squad on the same page.
The US aren't facing quite as much pressure as their opponents -- CONCACAF Qualifying isn't scheduled until October, and the Americans are expected to nail down their spot easily. But SheBelieves is still important to the USWNT for a number of other reasons, and a poor performance would weigh heavily on them.
Here's a look at where each team stands heading into the SheBelieves Cup.
At first glance, the US seems indomitable. They're the defending World Cup champions. They're still ranked #1 in the world. They regularly rack up lopsided wins. They're expected to waltz through CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying later this year. Even with Abby Wambach gone, and the likes of Carli Lloyd (the hero of the 2015 World Cup Final for this ridiculous goal [link to video?]) and Megan Rapinoe steadily aging out of the team, the US Women are stacked. Does anyone actually stand a chance against them?
Yes, as it turns out.
They may be the defending World Cup champions, but they're also still smarting from a quarterfinal exit in the 2016 Olympics. For a team expected to dominate the women's soccer tournament every cycle, not even making the podium was humiliating in a way this team rarely ever experiences.
Despite a handful of statement wins in 2017, the US also experienced some real pratfalls. They lost two of their three games in last year's edition of the SheBelieves Cup. They dropped the first game of last summer's Tournament Of Nations, a dismal 1-0 reverse to Australia. Last fall they trundled to a 1-1 draw with Canada, who are swiftly climbing the women's world rankings even as their men's team continue to wallow in irrelevance. And some of their wins weren't all that convincing -- 1-0 victories against Sweden and Norway and a 4-3 nailbiter against Brazil all forced the Americans to work harder than they're accustomed to.
There are a number of possible reasons why the US seem to be so shaky at times. The leadership crisis at the highest levels of US Soccer certainly hasn't helped. The drawn-out battle over equal pay almost certainly impacted morale. The squad is in transition, with younger talents fighting for minutes with veterans who aren't quite ready to step aside yet.
But perhaps the biggest problem with the USWNT -- one that threatens to hold the squad back for years if not addressed -- is that Jill Ellis doesn't seem to know her own team.
Ellis regularly calls as many as four goalkeepers into training camp for each set of international fixtures, but only Alyssa Naeher ever seems to get minutes. (Before Naeher, Hope Solo was the eternal default goalkeeper, only losing her slot when US Soccer kicked her off the team in 2016.)
Squad members, both young and old, are routinely played out of position. Most recently, Chicago Red Stars forward Sofia Huerta, who made a one-time switch from Mexico last year to line up for the US, has been deployed as a wide defender in the scant few minutes she's received.
And for all the young attacking power in the talent pool right now, Ellis seems to feel like she can only really count on Alex Morgan.
It's unclear what can be done about this particular problem. Ellis isn't going to change her ways. Firing her is a dicey proposition. Doing nothing could result in disaster. It's an untenable situation and no one knows what to do about it. And it might take a huge embarrassment, on par with the US men's team failing to qualify for the World Cup this summer, to get anyone at US Soccer to do anything about this.
All this to say: the USWNT are, at best, a mighty juggernaut that's starting to show its age a little, and at worst, a paper tiger. They're still the clear favorites to win SheBelieves. But it's by no means guaranteed.
Ranked #3 in the world, the Lionesses have made huge strides this decade. They reached the semifinals in the 2015 World Cup and the 2017 Women's Euros. (In the latter, they lost to eventual winners The Netherlands). Their performance in the last World Cup in particular was a watershed moment for the women's game in England, earning praise and soliciting media interest after being summarily ignored by the country at large for years. With UEFA World Cup Qualifying right around the corner, the Lionesses should be full of swagger and ready to take on the world.
Despite their strong performance at the Euros, the team spent most of 2017 mired in scandal. Late last year it was revealed that then-manager Mark Sampson had been racially abusing striker Eni Aluko, and when she went to higher-ups at the Football Association to complain, her international career was unceremoniously quashed. There were ultimately hearings in Parliament and Sampson was forced out of his position (for unrelated reasons), but the damage was done. Aluko will almost certainly never wear a Three Lions shirt again, and the way her teammates turned their backs on her and defended Sampson should have been a massive scandal in its own right. (And it might've been, but for the fact that this is England we're talking about.)
2018 didn't start off much better. After announcing they wanted to take their time in selecting Mark Sampson's replacement, they went on to make one of the most thoughtless, self-sabotaging hiring decisions possible. Former Manchester United star Phil Neville, who has no experience in the women's game whatsoever and a managerial resume so brief you could fit it in a tweet, was named the new Lionesses boss in January in what is clearly a patronage hire. The subsequent scandal over sexist and abusive remarks he made on social media, and the revelation that the FA did not conduct anything resembling due diligence, underscores just how undervalued the women's game still is in England.
The SheBelieves Cup will be Neville's first real test as England's manager -- or indeed, as a manager of any kind. There's a very real possibility that SheBelieves could mark the beginning of a long and frustrating year for the Lionesses and for women's soccer in England.
The current #2 in the world is potentially on the verge of something big.
Die Nationalelf has been quietly building themselves up for years, and heading into SheBelieves they are perhaps the most well-equipped squad to challenge the US over the next few years. With two World Cup titles and a set of Olympic gold medals to their credit, this isn't exactly their first rodeo, either. With the likes of Mandy Islacker, Dzsenifer Marozsán,and Hasret Kayikci on the 23-woman roster, Germany are the kind of team no one wants to face in a tournament setting. They won nine of their twelve games in 2017 -- including last year's edition of SheBelieves -- and in those wins Germany outscored their opponents 32-3.
In short: they're scary.
But they've also had their share of difficulties in tournament settings. While they managed to make it to the semifinals in the 2015 World Cup, losing to the US and then dropping the third place game to England, they also had a disappointing run in the Euros, crashing out in the quarterfinals thanks to a 2-1 loss to Denmark. For a team this strong, their performance at the Euros was simply not good enough.
SheBelieves offers Germany a chance to cleanse the palate and get back on track. A dominant performance here will turn some heads and build some real momentum heading into World Cup Qualifying this summer.
Germany also arguably have the least at stake here. While a poor performance would be disappointing, it wouldn't be quite as devastating as it would be for, say, the US or England. Their downside at SheBelieves would be tough but manageable; their upside could provide a launchpad for a run at the World Cup title next year.
Don't take your eyes off of Germany.
Les Bleus are definitely the wild card of the tournament.
In theory, France are one of the strongest teams in the world. They're made it to the quarterfinals of the last three World Cups. They put in a solid performance in the group stage of last year's Euros before getting bounced out of the quarterfinals by England. Slowly but surely, Corrine Diacre is building a side that can go toe-to-toe with anyone in the world. And really, if you had the choice between having the likes of Amandine Henry and Eugénie Le Sommer as teammates or opponents, you'd want the former. This is a formidable squad on their best day.
But they also can't seem to pull it all together. Consistent quarterfinal exits are threatening to become a de facto psychological ceiling -- the kind of expectation met with a shrug when achieved. They started 2017 strong, winning last year's edition of SheBelieves, but ran into a bit of a wall at the Euros. They then went on a four-game winning streak, nothing victories against England and Spain along with an 8-0 drubbing of Ghana.
But then they dropped a friendly to Germany 4-0, played out a dismal goalless deadlock with Sweden to close out the year, and then started 2018 off with a grinding 1-1 draw with Italy. They've dropped two spots in the most recent world rankings to #6, sending some clear red flags to anyone who follows France.
SheBelieves offers an opportunity to stop the rot. A strong performance (especially, perhaps, a repeat win) will allow to head into World Cup Qualifying this summer with clear heads and a renewed commitment. If they tank, though? Things could start to go very wrong, very quickly.
The 2018 SheBelieves Cup kicks off on Thursday with a doubleheader in Columbus, Ohio. England will take on France before the US squares off against Germany. Here's the full schedule and TV/streaming info for American viewers.
March 1st -- MAPFRE Stadium, Columbus, Ohio
- England vs France -- 4:00 PM Eastern, ESPN3
- USA vs Germany -- 7:00 PM Eastern, ESPN2
March 4th -- Red Bull Arena, Harrison, New Jersey
- USA vs France -- 12:00 PM Eastern, ESPN2
- Germany vs England —- 3:00pm Eastern, ESPN3
March 7th -- Orlando City Stadium, Orlando, Florida
- France vs Germany -- 4:00 PM Eastern, ESPN3
- USA vs England -- 7:00 PM Eastern, ESPNews