The end of the men's World Cup means the spotlight on next year's women's World Cup grows even greater.
Of course, plenty of people have already cast their eyes toward host France, especially U.S. players, coaches, and fans who hope to make the trip. But there's a lot of work to be done between now and then.
The Americans haven't yet qualified, and Concacaf's qualification tournament won't be played until October. Before then, there are five other games on the calendar: The Tournament of Nations against Japan, Australia and Brazil begins July 26, followed by games against Chile — heading to its first women's World Cup — around Labor Day weekend.
"It's starting to set in a little bit, but we still have loads more time," Delran-born U.S. captain Carli Lloyd said. "A lot can happen within that time, and you can't focus too much on the big picture."
Even when one does look at the big picture, it's been hard to see at times, because many U.S. stars have been injured. Playmakers Tobin Heath and Rose Lavelle, centerback Becky Sauerbrunn, and central midfielders Samantha Mewis, Julie Ertz, and Morgan Brian have all missed games.
Winger Mallory Pugh is the latest big name out, suffering a knee injury in late May that has her sidelined until August.
Right now Pugh is the only big absence, so the Tournament of Nations squad should be the closest thing to the United States' full potential that we've seen in a while.
The front four attackers will draw the biggest headlines, of course. Heath, Lindsey Horan, Alex Morgan, and Megan Rapinoe have combined for 34 goals and 21 assists this year for their clubs and country.
But keep an eye on Ertz and Mewis, who provide the defensive backbone that lets the creators in front go to work. Ertz and Mewis formed a dynamic partnership for much of last year, but they didn't play together for the national team's first six games of 2018 because of injuries. They reunited for two June games against China, and the team gave up just one goal over 180 minutes.
"It's been so fun playing with her," Mewis said of Ertz. "Any chance I get, I love to play alongside her."
Lloyd's Sky Blue FC hosted Mewis' North Carolina Courage on Saturday in the last round of National Women's Soccer League games before U.S. players report to training camp. It's been a rough year for Sky Blue, which traded for Lloyd in January but is winless through 15 games this year. North Carolina, the NWSL's best team, routed Sky Blue, 4-0, at Rutgers' Yurcak Field.
"Some things are just kind of out of your control, but what we can control is just how hard we're working," Lloyd said. "No one wants to have a season like this. I certainly don't. But we've just got to keep plugging away and fighting."
Returning to the national team won't solve Sky Blue's problems, but it will at least allow Lloyd to again work with a team that's much more accustomed to winning.