USA-Australia: Fear gives way to excitement for Matildas

The USA faces its most difficult test left before the start of the 2019 Women's World Cup when it hosts Australia Thursday night at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City, Colorado.

USWNT warmup schedule:
April 4. Australia (in Commerce City, Colo.)
April 7. Belgium (in Los Angeles, Calif.)
May 12. South Africa, Send-Off Series (in Santa Clara, Calif.)
May 16. New Zealand, Send-Off Series (in St. Louis, Mo.)
May 26. Mexico, Send-Off Series (in Harrison, N.J.)

The Matildas are one of only two teams who have beaten the defending world champions in the last two years. Host France's 3-1 win on Jan. 19 snapped a 28-game unbeaten streak dating back to Australia's 1-0 win in Seattle at the 2017 Tournament of Nations.

High marks for Milicic. Since then, Australia has changed coaches. Ante Milicic replaced Alen Stajcic in February following the latter’s shock dismissal -- it was even a surprise to the players -- after a controversial federation investigation into the national team environment.

After Australia won the Cup of Nations it hosted in March, players praised Milicic for the positive atmosphere in camp and the confidence he has shown in them.

Pride of Perth. Australia has one of the world's best players in 25-year-old Sam Kerr. She was the 2017 NWSL MVP with Sky Blue FC and has been the league's top scorer the last two years, first with Sky Blue and then the Chicago Red Stars after her trade.

Kerr was born in East Fremantle, a suburb of Perth in Western Australia, and raised in a family of Australia Rules football players. She was one of five teenagers on Australia's 2011 World Cup team and will be playing in her third World Cup.

Youth movement. The Matildas' embrace of young talent has been one constant with the national team program in the last decade. Australia don't have a large pool of players to draw from -- and no history of success in the youth world championships -- but it advances players to the senior team quickly.

Defender Ellie Carpenter, 18, was the youngest player in the NWSL in 2018, while 16-year-old Mary Fowler is in the Australia squad for Thursday's match.

NWSL experience. Australia should have the largest contingent of NWSL players at the World Cup besides the USA. Kerr and Carpenter are among 11 current Matildas preparing for the 2019 NWSL season, which opens on April 13. The Portland Thorns (Caitlin Foord, Hayley Raso and Carpenter) Reign FC (Lydia Williams, Steph Catley and Elise Kellond-Knight) lead all teams with three players each.

In all the 11 Australians are spread over six NWSL teams. That experience is cited as a big reason they have done well against the USA recently.

"You obviously respect the best nation in the world," Emily Van Egmond, who plays for Orlando Pride, told AAP, "but there's a fine line with that. We've got a bunch of our girls now who have been playing in America for the last numbers of years and who have been quite successful in the league, so I think, you speak about fear, but I don't think we have fear. It's more excitement."

Australia Roster:
GOALKEEPERS (3): 1-Lydia Williams (Reign FC), 12-Teagan Micah (UCLA), 18-Mackenzie Arnold (Brisbane Roar).
DEFENDERS (8): 2-Gema Simon (Newcastle Jets), 4-Clare Polkinghorne (Houston Dash), 5-Laura Alleway (Melbourne Victory), 7-Steph Catley (Reign FC), 14-Alanna Kennedy (Orlando Pride), 21-Ellie Carpenter (Portland Thorns), 22-Elizabeth Ralston (Sydney FC), 23-Teigen Allen (Melbourne Victory).
MIDFIELDERS (6): 3-Aivi Luik (Levante, Spain), 6-Chloe Logarzo (Washington Spirit), 8-Elise Kellond-Knight (Reign FC), 10-Emily Van Egmond (Orlando Pride), 13-Tameka Butt (Klepp Il, Norway), 19-Katrina Gorry (Brisbane Roar).
FORWARDS (6): 9-Caitlin Foord (Portland Thorns), 11-Lisa De Vanna (Sydney FC), 15-Emily Gielnik (Melbourne Victory), 16-Hayley Raso (Portland Thorns), 17-Mary Fowler (Bankstown City Lions), 20-Sam Kerr (Chicago Red Stars).

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