By Amy Tennery
(Reuters) - The SheBelieves Cup will serve as a proving ground for U.S. players vying for a spot on the national women's soccer team's Olympic roster, head coach Vlatko Andonovski said on Wednesday.
The four-times World Cup winners play Canada on Thursday in the first of three games in less than seven days, a tough schedule for players looking to earn a trip to the Tokyo Games.
"With some players, we are going to test how they are going to react in three consecutive games in a short period of time because (it) resembles the group stage in the Olympics," Andonovski, who took over from longtime head coach Jill Ellis in 2019, told reporters.
"But with some players we’re going to use it as an evaluating platform so we can make decisions going forward."
One such player is Lynn Williams, a 27-year-old forward who won the National Women's Soccer League (NWSL) golden boot in 2016 and led the North Carolina Courage to back-to-back championships in 2018 and 2019 but was passed over for the 2019 World Cup squad.
"For the longest time it was national team or bust for me and I think I had to take a step back and say, ‘You know what? I just love playing soccer, I love the challenge, I love playing this beautiful game and getting to play it with team mates’," Williams said.
She faces strong competition in the forward positions, with veterans Carli Lloyd, Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan - who returned to camp after recovering from COVID-19 last month - among the marquee names hoping to be in a roster of 18 players, five fewer than allowed at the World Cup.
"Every day, every training, every moment outside of training, you have to be on and you have to be consistent," said Williams, who scored in last month's friendly against Colombia. "When it comes down to picking the team it’s going to be who’s in form and also who is healthy."
The Americans face a depleted Canadian team as they begin their SheBelieves Cup title defence in Orlando, Florida, on Thursday, with Christine Sinclair, the all-time top scorer with 186 goals, and centre back Kadeisha Buchanan, both ruled out.
"Our mentality or approach is not changing but our strategy may change in terms of how we’re going to defend," Andonovski said.
U.S. defender Abby Dahlkemper said the American players were ready to leave it all out on the field.
"Inside the U.S. team, it’s just the most competitive environment, so you know (that) having to bring it every day is going to be really important," the 27-year-old said. "Canada’s a great team, they have amazing players and we respect them."
(Reporting by Amy Tennery, editing by Ed Osmond)