LONDON — Both the U.S. men's and women's national soccer teams are in Europe for year-ending friendlies, separated this week by some 400 miles and a striking gulf in their global place.
While the men continue to operate without a permanent coach in the wake of failing to qualify for the World Cup a year ago, the top-ranked women have launched a seven-month run to defend their world championship in France next summer.
It's never fair to compare the programs – men's and women's soccer around the world varies in development, emphasis and history – but at no time in the past 30 years have the premier American teams sat in such divergent stages.
Facing Scotland on Tuesday in the Glasgow suburb of Paisley, the women will attempt to cap an undefeated year and extend an unbeaten streak that began more than 15 months ago.
Two days later, in the first of two heavyweight tests, the No. 23 U.S. men will play World Cup semifinalist England at Wembley Stadium, their third visit to the sport's holy grounds. On Nov. 20, they'll close the calendar against Italy in Genk, Belgium.
The women began their European tour Thursday with a 1-0 victory against Portugal, a lukewarm performance featuring several secondary players. Coach Jill Ellis seemed inclined to save her first-choice lineup for the Scots, who qualified for the Women's World Cup for the first time.
That match will conclude a stretch of 14 since early June, including World Cup qualifiers last month, that were stuck into FIFA windows during the National Women's Soccer League season. It will also usher in a holiday break before the team heads back to Europe for two winter friendlies, including a major test against France on Jan. 19, in Le Havre.
December isn't uneventful, however. On Dec. 8, FIFA will conduct the Women's World Cup draw in Paris, placing the Americans atop one of the six four-team groups and setting their first-round schedule and long-term path through the month-long tournament.
Ellis designed the current adventure, as well as the January trip, to begin acclimation ahead of next summer's spectacle. Before playing in Portugal last week, the Americans had played 26 of their previous 27 matches at home — and the one away date was in Canada.
The only other road matches since the 2016 Olympics were in Norway and Sweden in June 2017.
The U.S. team has made the most of friendly settings: 17-0-2 this year and 24-0-3 since losing to Australia in July 2017 in Seattle.
"This is really important for us to play some of our games internationally," forward Alex Morgan said, "because you don't know the outside factors — the fan base, the playing surface, the weather. You're not on home territory. So much is unknown."
On Thursday, Ellis started three Washington Spirit players (Mallory Pugh, Rose Lavelle and Andi Sullivan), as well as Emily Fox, 20, a University of North Carolina sophomore from Ashburn (Stone Bridge High School). Lavelle and Pugh are all but certain of making the 23-player World Cup roster, and Lavelle is a probable starter.
Morgan, Julie Ertz, Tobin Heath and Kelly O'Hara – probable starters next summer – were not in the lineup Thursday. Heath skipped the European trip because of a personal commitment and O'Hara is sidelined after undergoing ankle surgery last month.
In her second national team appearance, Morgan's replacement at striker Jessica McDonald, scored late in the first half. McDonald is among a small handful of World Cup hopefuls aiming to make an impression before Ellis settles on her final list in the spring.
Meantime, men's interim coach Dave Sarachan invited 28 players for the two friendlies, likely his last stretch in charge. The U.S. Soccer Federation is expected to appoint a new coach by the end of the year, with Gregg Berhalter, a former U.S. defender who has guided the Columbus Crew for five seasons, the front-runner.
Sarachan continues integrating the next generation of players, calling up, among others, European-based Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie, Tim Weah and Tyler Adams, a New York Red Bulls midfielder expected to move to Germany this winter.
The Americans are at the start of a new World Cup cycle, almost four years before Qatar hosts the next tournament (November-December 2022). Since their qualifying flop last year, they've played 10 friendlies, mostly against top-shelf opponents. The next official competition does not come until next summer, the Concacaf Gold Cup.
At the moment, there is no great urgency to win. Rather, Sarachan is constructing a foundation and instilling belief and commitment, primarily with a young corps. The only experienced holdovers gaining regular call-ups have been DeAndre Yedlin, 25; Bobby Wood, who turns 26 Thursday; and John Brooks, 25.
"Playing England at Wembley is the opportunity of a lifetime, and our players will have the added bonus of facing a team that is clearly on the rise as they showed with their run to the World Cup semifinals," Sarachan said. "Overall, ending 2018 with these two matches really puts an exclamation point on the opportunities provided to the group this year."