(Reuters) - The Australian women’s soccer team will get an early indication of their World Cup prospects when they face defending champions the United States in a friendly in Denver on Thursday.
The Matildas, under new boss Ante Milicic, made short work of New Zealand, South Korea and Argentina to win the inaugural Cup of Nations on home soil last month but will be keen to see how they stack up against the top-ranked side in the world.
“It’s a fairly daunting task to be involved in your first camp and be playing the number one ranked team in the world but we’re playing with a fabulous group of players,” rookie defender Liz Ralston said.
“There’s a really big emphasis on every drill, every session, making sure you make the most of it.”
Ranked sixth in the world and boasting one of the world’s top strikers in captain Sam Kerr, the Matildas have a much better chance of winning the World Cup than Australian men’s team, who are ranked 42nd and were eliminated in the group phase at the global showpiece in Russia last year.
The Matildas reached the quarter-finals at the 2015 tournament in Canada, their best result, and have only grown in confidence since.
However, their preparations for the June 7-July 7 World Cup in France were thrown into chaos with the abrupt sacking of long-serving coach Alen Stajcic in January.
Stajcic was dismissed for what the governing Football Federation Australia said was a “poor culture” around the team, rather than for failing to produce results.
Milicic, appointed as a caretaker to steer the team through the World Cup, has proved a popular replacement and returned calm to a squad that was distracted by reports of dressing room disharmony.
Milicic is keen to give fringe players a chance to shine at their camp in Colorado and has made five changes to his Cup of Nations squad, including the uncapped duo of UCLA goalkeeper Teagan Micah and Sydney FC defender Ralston.
Experienced midfielder Katrina Gorry and Washington Spirit attacker Chloe Logarzo return after injuries, with 16-year-old striker Mary Fowler lured back after snubbing an international call-up by Stajcic last year.
While more than half the squad play for U.S. teams, a large Australia-based contingent have had to get used to the freezing cold in Colorado quickly after travelling from balmy conditions back home.
“(It’s) something we’re not used to, we’re not used to the chill and it’s a different climate and a different atmosphere here but it’s been nice,” said Melbourne-based forward Emily Gielnik.
Following the friendly against Jill Ellis-coached United States, Australia switch to warmer climes in Turkey for a pre-World Cup camp before heading to France where they meet Italy, Brazil and Jamaica in Group C.
Reporting by Ian Ransom; Editing by Peter Rutherford