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U.S. women hitting stride in final tuneups for World Cup qualifying

U.S. women hitting stride in final tuneups for World Cup qualifying
U.S. coach Jill Ellis speaks to star forward Alex Morgan during a Tournament of Nations games in Kansas City, Kan., on July 26. (Tim Vizer / AFP / Getty Images)

Coach Jill Ellis doesn’t have many questions left, but she will be looking for answers just the same when her U.S. women’s national team faces Chile on Friday at StubHub Center in the first of two tuneups before next month’s CONCACAF Championships, which will serve as the regional qualifying tournament for next summer’s Women’s World Cup.

The defending-champion Americans have never missed a World Cup and has failed to win the regional qualifier just once. This year’s team is so deep, the women who fail to make the U.S. roster next month would almost certainly finish second in the CONCACAF tournament if they were allowed to enter.

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Ellis is taking nothing for granted. Already this year key players including Tobin Heath, Rose Lavelle, Samantha Mewis, Becky Sauerbrunn, Kelley O’Hara and Mallory Pugh have missed time because of injuries. Megan Rapinoe, who leads the team with nine assists in 11 games, was a late scratch from the roster with a rib injury.

So Friday’s game and Tuesday’s rematch with Chile at Avaya Stadium in San Jose will give Ellis a final chance to look at a number of individuals and how well some of them work together before she has to finalize her 20-player team for qualifying.

“We're in a really good place,” Ellis said. “We've got a lot of depth up front. We’ve got now some more options in the midfield. The big thing in these two games is [the players] have some intense league play between now and qualifiers.

“So my thoughts going into these two games is to share the load a little bit in terms of minutes. You can talk about partnerships, you can talk about relationships, but at the end of the day you need players that are healthy and fresh to be able to perform.”

The U.S., ranked No. 1 in the world, is unbeaten in its last 19 games dating to last summer and has never lost at StubHub Center, where it will be playing for the 14th time, the most of any stadium in the world. A crowd of more than 20,000 is expected.

But the U.S. has never played No. 39 Chile, which has already qualified for its first World Cup by finishing second to Brazil in last spring’s South American qualifier.

Diamond Bar’s Alex Morgan, troubled by injuries of her own over the last several years, has a team-high 10 goals to go with three assists in 11 games.

“Last year and this year I’ve had a pretty good run. There’s nothing that’s really kept me off the field for more than a couple of weeks at a time,” she said. “You get in more of a rhythm. You start to feel more confident and you start to be able to kind of continue that cycle of preparation for a game, then game and evaluation and repeat. That has worked in my favor.”

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