For much of this year, something was missing from the U.S. women's soccer team.
One might say many somethings, given all the players who've been injured. But this particular something was intangible: the sense of swashbuckling confidence that has long been the American program's defining trait. Even during the lean years of the World Cup drought that ended in 2015, they always believed they were going to win — and that was often enough.
In recent times, the team seemed to look like it didn't always have all the answers. Shots and passes went astray, the defense was unsteady and there was a general sense that things just weren't working. Was it a natural effect of bringing in a new generation of players, some of whom couldn't stand up to the spotlight? Was it manager Jill Ellis' tinkering with formations and tactics? Was it those injuries?
It's easy to answer those questions in hindsight now, after the U.S. stormed through the Tournament of Nations. With almost every big star finally healthy, the U.S. scored nine goals in three games. The Americans showed style and flair in wins over Japan and Brazil, and battled fellow World Cup favorite Australia to an enthralling draw.
"It's starting to come together quite well," Megan Rapinoe said. "When we're with our full arsenal, we're pretty dangerous. Everyone getting to play with each other again — it's been a lot of, we don't know who the lineup is going to be, for a long time because people aren't available. To get everyone back together, it allows us to be at full strength, and I think you're seeing that on the field."
When the tournament started, all eyes were on the top four attackers: Rapinoe, Tobin Heath, Lindsey Horan and Alex Morgan. They delivered in a big way, combining for seven goals and six assists.
"I'm just really happy with the performance we put out there, and the goals we scored and the different types of goals we scored," said Morgan, who scored a hat trick in the 4-2 win over Japan. "This was a really tough tournament for us, and really fun as well. … It's important for this team's morale and confidence."
Heath was especially good, bedeviling opponents with fancy footwork on the right flank. She had been one of those injured players, and was overtaken by Mallory Pugh on the depth chart at right wing. Unfortunately, Pugh is hurt now, but that gave Heath a chance. She seized it and then some, reminding everyone why her skill set is nearly unparalleled in the U.S. player pool.
Not everything was perfect, to be sure, especially when Ellis deployed two attacking central midfielders instead of one. That left a lot of open space for opponents to take, and they took it. But when Ellis reversed the ratio, that space disappeared. McCall Zerboni was especially impressive, and at age 31 is on track for a late charge to her first World Cup. Between Zerboni, Julie Ertz and Samantha Mewis, there's ample steel to let the creators in front of them go to work.
Those creators have some steel in them, too, as evidenced by Horan's 91st-minute equalizer against Australia: a powerful header in traffic off a Rapinoe corner kick.