No one can ever accuse the U.S. women of taking it easy.
Having not played a competitive match since early March, and with the COVID-19 pandemic upending the NWSL season, the Americans return to action Friday against the Netherlands. That’s right — the same team the U.S. women beat in 2019 to win their fourth World Cup title and that is currently No. 4 in the world.
Oh, it’s an away game, too.
“We know that we’re nowhere close to our best,” U.S. coach Vlatko Andonovski said Wednesday. “We’re nowhere close from a tactical perspective, nowhere close from a physical preparation and not even in our mental preparation. We’ve been off for so many months … we have only a few players who are 90 minutes ready.
“I’m excited to see where this team is,” he continued. “We can see in training … but until we put them in a real test, especially against a team like the Netherlands, we don’t know where we’re at.”
This is not just an existential exercise. The Tokyo Olympics are eight months away, and games against top teams are an important part of the preparation. Andonovski is also new to the job, having replaced Jill Ellis after she stepped away following the World Cup, and he needs time to evaluate players – both the veterans as well as newcomers who will be part of the next generation.
But COVID prevented the Americans from gathering even for a training camp until late October. And while players could normally count on time with their club teams to stay fit, even that has been hit-or-miss. The NWSL was the first league to return, with a bubble tournament in June, and then had a six-week fall series that ended Oct. 17.
That means with the exception of Tobin Heath, Christen Press, Rose Lavelle, Sam Mewis and Alex Morgan, who are playing in England, and Jaelin Howell, who was part of the Florida State team that won the ACC championship 10 days ago, the Americans aren’t likely to look like the seamless juggernaut the world has come to expect.
Especially against a team like the Netherlands. In addition to playing European qualifying games in September and October, the Dutch players are all getting consistent training with European club teams.
“The biggest hurdle we will have with this is a 90-minute international game is a pretty intense load,” veteran defender Kelley O’Hara said. “As a lot of people have mentioned, people are in different places, different training environments. The biggest thing will be just getting through 90 minutes of international competition, whether it’s a friendly or not.
“We all knew this game was hopefully going to happen,” she added, “and have been preparing accordingly regardless of where we were coming from.”
But what has made the Americans so dominant for three decades now is that their standards remain the same whether it’s a World Cup game or a friendly, whether players are veterans or first-timers. Andonovski pointed to the example set by Morgan, who had daughter Charlie in early May.
Though she is one of the world’s best players and could easily make a case for being cut some slack, Morgan instead opted in September to go to England, where she plays for Tottenham. She made her debut for the Spurs on Nov. 7, and played in three games before joining the U.S. women.
“It’s a strange world we all live in and it’s hard times, and for her to make a decision in the middle of a pandemic and take her kid to go to (England) … is incredible. I think it deserves so much respect and just shows how serious she is and how committed she is to herself and to this team,” Andonovski said. “Just a sign of a true leader, a leader by example. Which shows the young players that in order to be on this team, it’s not just being good, but it involves a lot of sacrifice.”
Andonovski said he’s impressed with what he’s seen from Morgan so far, and that she is likely to play against the Netherlands. How much, though, he doesn’t know.
“We’re pretty sure she’s not 90-minute ready, but we’ll try and get whatever is the maximum for her,” he said.
No World Cup champion has gone on to win the next Olympics. While the quick turnaround has no doubt played a role, O’Hara said the mental fatigue is an even bigger factor.
The postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Games – they’ll be held exactly a year later – alleviates some of that. But the circumstances that caused the delay add their own challenges for the Americans.
“I do think we look pretty good. But to get from here to Olympics-ready, there’s just so much more we have to do,” O’Hara said. “Regardless of where we’re at right now, we always want to go up. And we have to go up.”
Which is why the easy way isn’t an option. Not for the U.S. women, at least.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.