If you are only a casual observer of the U.S. women's soccer team, you might think that last summer's spectacular blowout win over Japan in the World Cup final is as good as it gets.
Over the last few months, the quality of the U.S. team's soccer has risen to an even higher level. While that improvement hasn't been cast in as bright a spotlight as the World Cup produced, it has nonetheless been impossible to avoid noticing for many people inside and outside the program.
Under the guidance of head coach Jill Ellis, the Americans aren't just playing better soccer against bad teams. Among their 11 wins this year have been a sweep of England, France and Germany in a seven-day span; comprehensive wins over Canada and Costa Rica, the second- and third-best teams in CONCACAF; and two routs of Colombia, even if it wasn't quite the same Cafetaleras team that reached the World Cup's round of 16 last year.
Every one of those wins has come without creative wizard Megan Rapinoe on the field, as she's been sidelined since December due to a torn ACL. A raft of talents has stepped up in her absence, led by Tobin Heath and 17-year-old Mallory Pugh.
Heath isn't new to the scene, to be sure, but her standing on the depth chart is higher than ever. The 27-year-old has always been blessed with flashy footwork; now she has added a scoring touch and the smarts to make great runs off the ball.
Pugh's arrival could command multiple columns on its own, and I'll discuss her in depth later in this piece. For now, know this. Despite her youth - she's half the age of goalkeeper Hope Solo, currently the oldest player on the roster - the Colorado native has integrated seamlessly into the squad, to the point that she's been a starter in seven of her 11 appearances to date.
Along with Heath and Pugh, there's 21-year-old Lindsey Horan. Long renowned as one of the national team's top attacking prospects, she has quickly converted from trequartista-esque high midfield scorer to deep-lying playmaker.
It helps that Horan has a nearly telepathic relationship with longtime close friend Morgan Brian, her partner in the center of the park. The duo has made up for the retirement of creative visionary Lauren Holiday, whose role at the World Cup was similar to what Horan's is now; and has provided enough steel in midfield to let teammates around them run free.
Up top, Alex Morgan is joined on the depth chart by Christen Press' sublime skill and Crystal Dunn's speedy power. The back line is anchored by a pair of strong, savvy central defenders in Julie Johnston and co-captain Becky Sauerbrunn.
Oh, and right in the middle of it all is the reigning FIFA Women's Player of the Year, Carli Lloyd. All she does is drive the entire team forward with her vision and unparalleled willpower.
(Some people might, just for the heck of it, contrast the state of the women's team with the cacophony of melodramatic angst that swirls around Jurgen Klinsmann's U.S. men's team. I leave that up to you...)
Ellis has an embarrassment of riches at her disposal. And although she still has her fair share of critics, Ellis has struck just enough of a balance between building chemistry in her top lineup and trying new players to see how much depth she has.
In all the years I've been covering the U.S. women's team, the current edition is the best I've ever watched. And while I haven't followed the program since its first days, given the overall advancement in global women's soccer over the years, we may well be watching the best U.S. women's national team of all time right now.
It sounds like hyperbole, I know. It sounds like the sort of thing you'd see in a glitzy social media campaign for a new national team jersey that most fans find aesthetically boring.
But it's not hyperbole. It's the truth, and a lot of people - from players to coaches to media to fans - can see it.
"I think now we're at the point where the players that we have and the players that we're bringing in, it allows us to be a team that I think can take care of the ball," Ellis said. "I thought our transition attack in the World Cup was very good, but now we're specifically focusing in on our organized attacking... I think we're more diverse. And part of that is allowing these players - we say, in the final third, express yourself."
That more expressive attack is backstopped by a defense that is just as stout now as it was during the World Cup, when Johnston and Sauerbrunn became household names.
"What we always have in our hip pocket now is our defending is so good," Ellis said. "Everybody embraces it, nobody's not doing their part, they understand positionally where they need to be."
Ellis' guiding principle is to "not just to possess to possess, [but] to possess to get into the goal zone to score goals." She cited the fourth goal in last Wednesday's 7-0 rout of Colombia as a textbook example of how everything has come together.
"Our spacing was so much better positionally," Ellis said. "Those are the things that we're starting to try and build so that the end product is a very dynamic team."
Lloyd started that play from deep in midfield, and finished it with the scoring strike. Maybe it didn't stand out to you on a night when the U.S. scored seven times, but to the team, it was a particular symbol of how Lloyd described the team's improvement.
"Not that goals are necessarily coming easier for us, but we're getting a bit more tricky and sophisticated in the final third," she said. "It's not just goals coming off of set pieces anymore. We're actually scoring in the run of play, off through balls... I think this team's in a really good spot right now."
You can always get a bucket's worth of good quotes from Meghan Klingenberg, one of the most effusive athletes you'll ever meet in any sport. You can also get plenty of substance.
"The style that we've played has changed, and it has allowed us to become the team that we wanted to be and that we knew we could be," she told me. "As we keep progressing and keep getting better, I think that you'll probably keep thinking that. I've known that we've been this good all along."
I asked Klingenberg if she thinks the team is playing at the highest level she has seen during the six years since she first reached the senior level.
"Yeah," she answered. "I think our potential is out of this world. Potential means that you're not worth anything right now. But we have that drive to be the best, we have the technique to be the best, and we have the smarts to get there. So when you put all those things together, I think we're in good shape."
When I put the matter to Press, she did something that might surprise a few of you: she credited Ellis directly.
"I think that our team has evolved a lot, and a good part of that is because we've had more time with Jill," Press said. "She's been able to implement her style and her tactics, and I think at the end of the day, cohesive soccer is always going to be more sophisticated. I think the team has been able to use the principles that Jill and Tony [Gustavsson, Ellis' top assistant] have taught us, and we've really started to get a feel for each other."
Press herself has been a major point of contention for Ellis' critics - specifically, Ellis' deployment of Press in a wide role instead of as the central striker.
But how else do you get Press, Morgan and Dunn (or Rapinoe once she's healthy again) on the field at the same time? To say nothing of Heath, Pugh, Kelley O'Hara, Heather O'Reilly, Stephanie McCaffrey, and... well... you get the idea.
The answer, Press acknowledged, is for her to start in a wide role and move toward the middle when the flow of a game allows.
"At the end of the day, I feel the most comfortable close to the goal and in a central position," she said. "I think now the formation that we're playing allows me to get in those positions even from a wide space."
There's a subtle difference between Press' role now and what it was when Ellis first installed her on the flank. And you can be sure that Press, one of the U.S. team's most tactically savvy players, understands every bit of it.
"If I compare it to a year ago when I was playing primarily out wide, it was an outside midfield role," Press said. "I was defending in my 18 [yard box] and trying to get end line to end line. I don't think that plays to my strengths. Now the team has adjusted a little bit, and as a wide player I'm able to make diagonal runs toward the goal, and make those penetrating runs and look for those through balls."
Then there's Pugh. It may seem at first glance that bringing in a 17-year-old is a sign of weakness or lack of depth. In fact, it's a sign of the opposite: if you're good enough, you can play, no matter the age.
And Pugh isn't the only one who fits that description. Ellis included another 17-year-old, forward Ashley Sanchez, on the roster for the two-game series with Colombia that concluded Sunday at Talen Energy Stadium.
I asked Ellis on Saturday what it has been like for her to integrate Pugh and Sanchez into this squad alongside veterans such as Lloyd, Sauerbrunn and Solo. Ellis' answer was one of the most eloquent statements I've heard her offer. Here it is in full:
A lot of that starts with the core players we have, the veterans. They are very professional about embracing a new player. All they care about is if they can play. It doesn't matter what the age is. So I think they've done a good job with that. I also think socially, they're a very open team, and welcome new people and make it a comfortable environment. Now, you'd probably have to ask Mal that directly, but that's how it feels and seems.
I think initially, there's a little bit of teasing about being so young, and some of them are like, "I could be your mother." You hear that initially, and now they value what she brings. She's a tremendous role model in terms of younger players making that jump.
I brought Ashley in - Ashley wasn't ready. She wasn't going to make an 18 [player game day roster]. But I think I owe it to the program, and I've said this many times: I can't just look at the Olympics as a fixed event. I've got to look at 2019 [the next World Cup].
If we're really talking about winning more World Cups, then we can't just have a singular vision focused on a nine-month period. We've got to look beyond that. So that's been part of it. That was always the plan, after getting through the World Cup. The World Cup, there was a short run-up. We needed to win, and it was about making sure that happened. Now it's certainly about looking at a vision beyond.
We have great integration with the youth coaches. They know what the level is. I just had our under-17's coach in. They're now comfortable making recommendations, because they see what it takes. Then ultimately, you get them in here, and they might be tremendous technically, but right now this piece [Ellis points to her brain] isn't quick enough.
Eventually, you have to vet them in here. For some of them, they won't be ready. But I will be committed to continuing to look and search, because I do think there are a lot of good players coming through our youth environment, and Mallory has obviously shown that it doesn't really matter the age.
Pugh was brought out to talk to the dozen or so reporters who covered Saturday's practice session at Talen Energy Stadium. You don't always see young players allowed into the media spotlight like that, but Pugh was composed and humble.
"It's just been really fun, and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and experience," she said. "I know that all my teammates have been really welcoming over the past few months, and I think that just having the opportunity is just very cool."
Again: she's 17. Not old enough to vote. We are not used to this in American soccer, which for the most part still doesn't put players on the professional stage until they have college degrees.
But there Pugh was.
She was asked by a member of the media when she knew she was ready mentally to take the step up to the senior level.
Veteran national team press officer Aaron Heifetz, standing nearby, asked if she knew yet in the first place.
"No," Pugh quipped.
"I think most of these players over the years have been training their minds, and I think I'm not even there yet," she continued.
A reporter asked Pugh if she was surprised by how fast everything has happened.
"Yeah, I'm really surprised," she answered. "I think just coming into the January camp and going out there and having fun and kind of just being free with everything, I think that kind of helped me with where I am now. Then especially the teammates and the people around me have helped a lot too."
If all you see of Pugh is what she does on the field, you wouldn't get even a hint of that.
Julie Foudy certainly has the historical perspective. Though she hung up her cleats a dozen years ago, she is as connected to the U.S. program as ever thanks to her work with ESPN.
"There's confidence and there's a swagger back in this group," she told me. "They're aggressive, they're pressing, they're getting forward off of defenders coughing up balls or them winning balls back... They're pressing on all cylinders and from all fronts, and it's working. It's good to see. And it's good to see that they're not getting distracted by everything else."
So what comes next for the U.S. team? There are four games left before the Olympics: two against Japan in June, and two in July for which details have yet to be confirmed.
There's also the start of the National Women's Soccer League's historic fourth campaign. Ellis said multiple times over the weekend that she'll judge players' league form in making the final cuts on the impossibly small 18-player Olympic roster. We'll see if she lives up to that promise, but it's still worth noting.
"I have told the players this: watching them in the league is important, because now it's about form and getting minutes," Ellis said. "I've seen players that have made good strides and I've been really pleased with the group we've had in. I'm not going to name the roster too early, because part of it is I do want to send those messages that performance in the league is important."
Ellis also acknowledged that she has to be flexible in how she judges players and how they can fit into her squad.
"I think it's my responsibility to continue to look at them and not pigeonhole them into what I thought they were capable of," she said. "I also think that as our team starts to change, what may or may not have been a good fit back then, now you look at it and say yeah, maybe that is a fit."
And there's a third layer on top of that. As was noted above, Ellis doesn't want the Olympics to be an end point of a process. She wants it to be part of the buildup to 2019.
"The players I'm looking at right now for this Olympic team are players that I believe will be around in 2019," she said. "It doesn't mean they're going to make the team in 2019, but they're players I think can still have it in their repertoire to be competing for a spot in 2019. That's important, because I want to make sure, again, that one eye is on the future."
How about a fourth layer? Somewhere along the way, if everything goes right, Megan Rapinoe might just beat the clock in her injury rehab and get on that plane to Rio.
It would give Ellis even more of a headache, but you can be sure it's a headache she'd love to have.
"Ultimately, Megan steers the ship a little bit in terms of how well she progresses," Ellis said. "Neither one of us is going to want her to put herself in a situation where it would impact her or make her go backwards in terms of her health. So I think we just have to see that one play out. I know she's making fantastic progress right now."
A few days before last summer's World Cup, I wrote a column that put a spotlight on the U.S. team's rigid playing style at the time.
"Overall, the United States certainly doesn't lack for talent - at least not yet," I said. "Remaining among the world's elite, though, could mean a dramatic change in how players and coaches value the balance between athleticism - the traditionally more important virtue - and skill."
I also wrote last summer that there was "a perfect storm of circumstances for the Americans to finally end their World Cup drought this summer. But if they don't, the wait for the title could last longer than just the next four years."
Over the course of the post-World Cup victory tour, the change I referred to started to happen. And since Abby Wambach's retirement in December, the pace of that change has risen dramatically.
At this point, the U.S. women are the favorites to not just win their fourth straight Olympic gold medal this summer, but to win a second straight World Cup for the first time ever in 2019.