The last time the best women’s soccer team in the world was together for a game, the coronavirus was just beginning to spread in the United States.
In what was supposed to be an Olympic year, the U.S. national team won the SheBelieves Cup, and all 23 players planned to rejoin National Women’s Soccer League squads before preparing for Tokyo.
More than eight months later, the core of the roster has finally regathered — south of Amsterdam, with a mix of European- and U.S.-based players, under strict protocols during a global pandemic — for Friday’s rematch of the 2019 World Cup final against the Netherlands in the city of Breda.
“It’s been, obviously, a crazy year,” midfielder Sam Mewis said Monday. “But just the spirit of this team, it’s so fun to be in with the girls and get to see everyone again and play in this group again.”
The top-ranked Americans typically play at least 20 matches per year, but with travel restrictions, cancellations and the Olympics delayed until 2021, Friday’s match will be the last of just nine in 2020.
Last month, Coach Vlatko Andonovski tapped into the broader player pool for an 11-day camp in greater Denver, though without the benefit of a match. He will have most of his regulars for the Dutch visit, a meeting that was in the works for months before being finalized last week.
The U.S. team is tentatively scheduled to conduct training camp in January and host the sixth annual SheBelieves Cup in late February or early March. Then the squad hopes to begin turning attention to the Tokyo Olympics.
“The Olympics are going to come quickly, and there’s not going to be a lot of opportunity to get together between now and July,” goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher said. “So we have to take advantage of every opportunity to get together we can.”
They have done so after pre-travel testing and quarantine at the team hotel before workouts could begin. Midfielder Lindsey Horan was a late scratch after testing positive before departing the United States.
Since their previous match, a 3-1 victory over Japan on March 11 in Frisco, Tex., five high-profile players pursued opportunities in England, a rarity since the NWSL’s formation in 2013 but a new avenue as the women’s game grows worldwide.
Mewis and midfielder Rose Lavelle signed with Manchester City; attackers Christen Press and Tobin Heath moved to Manchester United; and striker Alex Morgan joined Tottenham Hotspur.
While their departures were a setback to the NWSL, whose popularity hinges largely on U.S. national team players, it could end up benefiting the national team.
The English league restarted in September and will run until May, keeping players in top fitness and form leading to the Olympics. Conversely, the NWSL completed a truncated season in October and doesn’t plan to launch its 2021 season until mid-April. Training camps are scheduled to open Feb. 1.
“I definitely hope having all these games and gaining all these experiences, not only for me but all the girls in Europe, will help the national team prepare for a tournament,” said Mewis, who left the NWSL after six seasons.
Despite the NWSL’s inactivity, Mewis added: “I feel like everybody is going to be well prepared. … It really is a team of professionals, and everyone knows what they need to be prepared for a world tournament next year.”
The move to England has proved beneficial to Mewis. She has scored twice in seven Women’s Super League matches and had a goal in Manchester City’s 3-1 extra-time victory over Everton in the FA Cup final at Wembley Stadium.
Lavelle, Heath and Press are featuring regularly, and Morgan is getting up to speed after giving birth in May. All will remain in the English league for the foreseeable future.
“I would love to play in the NWSL again someday,” Mewis said. “The NWSL is doing a lot of things really well. Who knows what the future brings?”
The Dutch camp will reunite her with her older sister, Kristie, a Houston Dash midfielder who has regained national team status since Andonovski’s hiring last year.
“I know my parents wish we could all be together” for Thanksgiving, Mewis said, “but it’s such a weird time. It’s very special I will have a family member here for a holiday.”
Aside from the English-based players, defender Emily Sonnett left the NWSL on a short-term basis this fall and won the Swedish title with Gothenburg. Defender Alana Cook has been with Paris Saint-Germain for most of two years.
The Dutch camp will end a fractured year, one that limited the NWSL to a summer tournament in Utah and a fall series.
Reflecting on 2020, Naeher recalled the absence of team activities for months. Her workout place was the roof of her apartment building’s parking garage in Chicago, where she plays for the NWSL’s Red Stars.
“It was just me, the ball and the wall,” she said. “This year has certainly been unique.”