Events aren’t just for kicks

Soc­cer tour­na­ments fea­tur­ing qual­ity foes aim to strengthen the U.S. women’s team.

Los Angeles Times - - SPORTS - KEVIN BAX­TER ON SOC­CER

Jill El­lis stud­ied lit­er­a­ture in col­lege. But you don’t need a med­i­cal de­gree to know that un­ex­er­cised mus­cles will even­tu­ally lose their strength.

The same goes for teams. So when El­lis, coach of the U.S. women’s soc­cer team, took stock of her pro­gram fol­low­ing the 2015 World Cup, some of what she found wor­ried her.

The U.S. was the reign­ing world cham­pion, ranked No. 1, was in the midst of a 25-game un­beaten streak and hadn’t lost at home in 11 years. But the Amer­i­cans were be­gin­ning to atro­phy.

The year be­fore they had played just five teams ranked among the world’s top 10. Against the oth­ers, the U.S. won two games by scores of 8-0, two more 7-0 and outscored 24 op­po­nents by a com­bined 79-15.

El­lis didn’t see that as ev­i­dence of a dom­i­nant team but of an untested one.

So last year El­lis and U.S. Soc­cer started their own tour­na­ment, the She Be­lieves Cup, and in­vited Eng­land, France and Ger­many to par­tic­i­pate. El­lis and the fed­er­a­tion dou­bled down on that idea this sum­mer by cre­at­ing a West Coast event, the Tour­na­ment of Na­tions, which con­cludes Thursday at StubHub Cen­ter. Australia plays Brazil at 4:15 p.m. and the U.S. meets Ja­pan in a re­match of the 2015 Women’s World Cup fi­nal at 7 p.m.

Un­beaten Australia, ranked No. 7 in the world, can win the tour­na­ment by beat­ing or hold­ing No. 8 Brazil to a draw. For the U.S. to win, it must make up a

three-goal dif­fer­en­tial while beat­ing No. 6 Ja­pan and hav­ing Australia lose.

“Ul­ti­mately, what the coaches care about are two things,” El­lis said. “They care about qual­ity op­po­nents and that their play­ers get an ex­pe­ri­ence that they would get as they go into a World Cup en­vi­ron­ment, which means 15,000-20,000 peo­ple in the stands.

“We kind of pro­vide that ex­pe­ri­ence. That’s why they come.”

The tour­na­ments were es­sen­tially cre­ated to re­place Por­tu­gal’s Al­garve Cup, a 23-year-old com­pe­ti­tion that has tra­di­tion­ally been the most im­por­tant event on the women’s cal­en­dar in years between the Olympics and the World Cup.

But be­cause the Al­garve is a 12-team event, the field is of­ten wa­tered down. The last time the U.S. played in Por­tu­gal, in 2015, it didn’t play a top-10 team un­til the fi­nal.

“You go there and you maybe end up play­ing one or two of the top 10 teams in the world,” El­lis said. “Here we’re guar­an­tee­ing that we’re get­ting th­ese matches. It’s just where we are in our de­vel­op­ment.”

Ac­cord­ing to statis­tics com­piled by FIFA, there are more women play­ing or­ga­nized soc­cer in the U.S. than in Africa, Asia, South Amer­ica and Ocea­nia com­bined.

Women’s soc­cer is fol­lowed more closely here as well. In the two tour­na­ments the U.S. has hosted this year, three of the four dou­ble­head­ers drew crowds in ex­cess of 21,000. Com­pare that to the women’s Eu­ros, which will con­clude this week­end in the Nether­lands. There, 18 of the 24 group games drew fewer than 7,000 peo­ple and a match between Rus­sia and Italy re­port­edly drew fewer than 700.

“A lot of th­ese teams that want to come over here, it’s not only are they get­ting qual­ity games in good sta­di­ums but they’re ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a fan base, an at­mos­phere,” El­lis said.

“We al­ways wanted to be at the fore­front of de­vel­op­ing the game. In the in­ter­na­tional arena it’s rec­og­niz­ing our part.”

Marta, Brazil’s five-time FIFA player of the year, says the rest of the world looks to the U.S. to play that role.

“I’ve al­ways seen the im­por­tance that the women’s game has in the United States,” said Marta, who played three sea­sons in two U.S. leagues between 2009 and 2011, then re­turned this sea­son with Or­lando of the Na­tional Women’s Soc­cer League.

“That is a big deal for ev­ery­one. Many coun­tries can put tour­na­ments to­gether and many of them are be­ing more and more suc­cess­ful.

“But when it’s done here in Amer­ica, we know that’s re­ally well-planned and ex­e­cuted and the re­sults are al­ways good.”

In the short-term the re­sults haven’t been par­tic­u­larly good for the U.S. The Amer­i­cans lost three of their first five games in the two tour­na­ments they hosted this year, one more than they lost in the last two years com­bined.

El­lis sees that not as a fail­ing of the team but as ev­i­dence that the women’s game is im­prov­ing every­where. And that’s some­thing she wanted to pro­mote from the day she took over as coach of the U.S. team three years ago.

“There is par­ity,” she said. “What was im­por­tant when I took the po­si­tion was to bring more top teams to our coun­try … so we could have com­pe­ti­tion. To put on two tour­na­ments like SheBelieves and Na­tions gives my play­ers ex­pe­ri­ence try­ing to get on a podium, play­ing top teams, man­ag­ing points, all that kind of stuff. It stim­u­lates that.

“The fact that we’re run­ning them and they’re well-at­tended, it does speak to where our sport is glob­ally. Peo­ple want to come and watch th­ese teams. It’s just a bit more ap­peal­ing to the av­er­age fan.”

Ted S. War­ren As­so­ci­ated Press

JILL EL­LIS and her U.S. women’s team still have an out­side chance to win the Tour­na­ment of Na­tions.

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