- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Mallory Pugh approaches her opportunities with the U.S. national team pragmatically: It’s a chance to get better.

“I think if you talk to anyone that goes into national team camp they’ll say it’s the most competitive environment that you can be in,” she said.

Pugh is among those on the U.S. roster for the upcoming Tournament of Nations, which starts Thursday in Seattle. The 19-year-old forward grabbed headlines earlier this year when she decided to eschew a college career at UCLA and go pro.

She plays for the Washington Spirit of the National Women’s Soccer League, and is learning to navigate her job and all that it entails - including juggling club and national team obligations.

“I think it’s definitely very demanding and it is quite an adjustment, but I’ve got great resources around me to help me gel into that,” she said.

The Tournament of Nations will be tough. The United States , ranked No. 1 in the world, will face sixth-ranked Japan, seventh-ranked Australia and eighth-ranked Brazil in the round-robin showcase, with a winner determined by points.

Following the stop in Seattle, the tournament shifts to San Diego on Sunday before wrapping up in Carson, California, on Aug. 3. Brazil faces Japan in the opener at CenturyLink Field, followed by the United States’ match against Australia.

U.S. Soccer is looking to host a Tournament of Nations each summer that there isn’t World Cup or Olympic competition.

A look at each of the teams competing:

UNITED STATES: After a disappointing last-place finish in the SheBelieves Cup in March, the defending World Cup champions dropped out of the top spot in the international rankings. Four straight wins have put the Americans back on top.

One player to keep an eye on is Megan Rapinoe, who has seen a resurgence this season with her pro team, the Seattle Reign. Rapinoe has 12 goals to lead the NWSL in scoring, including a hat trick last weekend in a 5-4 victory over Sky Blue.

Rapinoe struggled to return to form last year as she recovered from a knee injury in late 2015.

AUSTRALIA: The Matildas are among the rising stars of women’s soccer. The team went to the quarterfinals at the 2015 Women’s World Cup, the first time an Australian team - men or women- had reached the knockout stage of soccer’s premier tournament.

The Matildas also advanced to the quarterfinals of last year’s Olympics in Brazil.

“It’s really big for us. There’s some quality teams there that we’re playing against so I think it will be a big step if we can do well against some of the best countries in the world,” midfielder Haley Raso, who plays for the NWSL’s Portland Thorns, said about the upcoming tournament.

One player to watch is Sam Kerr, who is being hailed as the sport’s next big star. Kerr, who plays for Sky Blue, has 11 goals this season in a race with Rapinoe for the league’s Golden Boot award.

BRAZIL: Marta, Marta, Marta . The five-time FIFA World Player of the Year has been a mainstay on the Brazilian national team since she was 16. While women’s soccer isn’t widely recognized in her home country, Marta won respect from her countrymen with her play in the Olympics. She was met by enthusiastic fans at every stop throughout the tournament and some even crossed out Neymar’s name on their No. 10 jerseys and added hers.

After years of playing in Europe, Marta came to the U.S. this year, signed by the Orlando Pride. She’s made a significant impact with eight goals and four assists, and has even taken on mentoring some of the younger players.

JAPAN: The Japanese, who beat the Americans at the 2011 World Cup in Germany then fell to the U.S. (remember Carli Lloyd’s hat trick?) in the 2015 World Cup final in Canada, did not make the field for last year’s Olympics.

Japan’s roster includes Rumi Utsugi, who plays for the Seattle Reign.

“We have tried various players to get to know them better, and now I think that it’s time for us to stick to getting victories more than before considering the upcoming Asian Cup in April of next year. In the previous tour to the Netherlands and Belgium, we tried a new formation, this time I want the matches to have two different main things: Broaden the team’s capacity and improving the team’s strengths,” coach Asako Takakuro said in a statement.

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