As soon as it was pointed out to Phil Neville that his next match was against “your old friends,” the England women’s coach flashed back with a smile.
Eight months after losing to the Americans in the Women’s World Cup semifinals, England will be playing them again.
For Neville, it’s hard to forget the pain of losing 2-1 in France.
“I think it’s becoming a real rivalry between us,” Neville said on Tuesday. “The games have been really tight. The games have been really competitive and the way our players have been talked about now is getting close to the way people talk about the U.S. players.
“From a player to player point of view I think our players and their players will be relishing this even more. You think of the titanic battles that club sides have had against each other, we want to recreate that.”
In France in July there was tension between the Americans and English even before kickoff in Lyon with a squabble over hotel snooping. That was followed by Alex Morgan’s tea-sipping celebration for the U.S. that was viewed as a dig at the English.
Although England was denied a place in the World Cup final, Neville’s side did draw with the United States last March on the way to clinching the invitational four-team SheBelieves Cup.
It’s time to defend the title.
The competition, of course, lacks the prestige of the World Cup. But for Neville, the March 5 meeting with the world champions in Orlando, Florida is the perfect platform for his team - and the women’s game more broadly.
“We want to be the biggest threat to them,” Neville said at Wembley Stadium, announcing a youthful squad to take to the U.S. “We want to overtake them. That’s the aim. Not just to get level with them, we want to overtake them. The more we play them, the more that we compete against them, the more confidence we’ll have.”
Hiring their staff helps, too. After almost a decade working with U.S. Soccer, Dawn Scott was brought back to the English Football Association as senior women’s physical performance manager in November.
Scott is already making changes to the training program for the Lionesses, particularly linked to the menstrual cycles of players.
“Dawn has already spoken to a lot of the players about it and made a big impact already,” Neville said. “Dawn has a big thing on men aren’t women and women aren’t men. We have to tailor our philosophies, profiles, the way we test, strength and condition and she is making things really bespoke. We have got someone with a really great experience of working with the elite athletes.”
England has won only two of its six matches since losing the third-place playoff at the World Cup. They are all friendlies as England has qualified for its next major tournament - the 2021 European Championship - as hosts.
“Since the World Cup, what I have wanted is to bring the best possible elite workers within my staff - and I think I have got that with Dawn,” Neville said. “Ultimately the thing that Dawn says to me is, ‘I am not a magician.’ It is up to the players and implement the things that we are asking them to do.”
In the SheBelieves Cup, England will also be playing Spain and Japan, which hosts the Olympics. Neville will also be in charge of the British team in Japan but he can only take 18 players from a pool of talent including Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
“I have stopped all of my staff talking about the Olympics, and I will stop the players talking about the Olympics,” Neville said. “When June, July comes we’ll start talking about the Olympics. There is a lot of work being done by all of my staff in terms of scouting, preparing, speaking to players on the lists.”
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