The best women’s soccer team on the planet has descended on Kansas City in preparation for a marquee tournament stacked with World Cup contenders and star players.


Ranked No. 1 in the world, the U.S. Women’s National Team will begin its 2018 Tournament of Nations campaign on Thursday against archrival Japan at Children’s Mercy Park. The high-profile matchup, set to kick off at 6 p.m. CT on FS1, is the second game of a mouthwatering doubleheader that begins when Australia duels Brazil at 3:15 p.m. CT.


Tickets for the doubleheader are on sale now via Ticketmaster.com as the U.S. WNT preps for its fourth all-time appearances at state-of-the-art Children’s Mercy Park.


In the lead-up to Thursday’s game against Japan — which serves as a rematch of the 2011 and 2015 FIFA World Cup Finals — U.S. WNT head coach Jill Ellis, defender Becky Sauerbrunn and midfielder Amy Rodriguez spoke to local media from their preparatory base at Pinnacle, the world-class training home of Sporting Kansas City.


The narratives that emerged from their remarks revolved around the U.S. WNT’s collective drive to avoid complacency as World Cup champions, using the Tournament of Nations as a valuable test drive for World Cup qualifying in October, and playing in a soccer-crazed city at arguably the nicest soccer facilities in the country.


The Soccer Capital


U.S. Soccer focuses on two variables when determining where its women’s national team will travel to play competitive matches, Ellis said. Of upmost importance is for the city to have a great stadium and playing surface. The other key is having an excellent training facility.


Needless to say, Kansas City checks off both boxes with flying colors.


“It’s phenomenal—fantastic. Beautiful inside and out,” Ellis said of Pinnacle.


The 51-year-old Ellis assumed U.S. WNT head coaching duties in 2014 and led the Americans to their third World Cup title a year later. Having coached across the country since the late 1980s, Ellis has seen just about every soccer training facility in the U.S. Pinnacle ranks among the best, she says, and the state of Kansas as a whole boasts a vibrant soccer community. With Kansas City vying to become a host city for the 2026 FIFA World Cup, this only bodes well for the metropolitan area’s cause.


“It’s very much a soccer-friendly state and it has great facilities,” Ellis said. “The most important thing in terms of [having] a culture to welcome a World Cup game is you’ve got to have fans. This is a city and a state that very much supports soccer with their pro teams. When we’ve come here, we’ve always had good support.”


Sauerbrunn and Rodriguez, a pair of seasoned U.S. WNT veterans who have both earned more than 100 caps during their international careers, are in full agreement. Both players starred for FC Kansas City, leading the club to consecutive NWSL championships in 2014 and 2015, before the franchise moved to Utah ahead of the 2018 season.


“It definitely still feels like home,” Sauerbrunn said of Kansas City. “I’ve had a few of those over the years, but landing in that airport and driving on those roads, I spent five years here. There are a lot of fond memories.”


Rodriguez echoed Sauerbrunn’s sentiments, reflecting positively on her time in Kansas City and lauding Pinnacle for its countless amenities and features.


“I’ve never trained here before, so this is wonderful,” Rodriguez said. “Great fields, great facility and the weather is beautiful, so we couldn’t be more excited to train out here.


“I absolutely love being back here because KC is so close to my heart. I love the fan base and I love the people. I’m just really excited to get back out there and hopefully play in front of these fans.”


Hungry and Humble


Around a decade ago, when Sauerbrunn first broke into the senior national team, she was introduced to a fundamental concept by her veteran teammates, many of whom were staples of the squad that won the 1999 FIFA World Cup on American soil.


“Growing up, I learned something from the 99ers called wholesome discontent,” Sauerbrunn said. “It’s about being appreciative of where you are — we’re one of the best teams in the world and we’ve proven that over the years — but also knowing that in order to stay that way, we need to keep pushing it. We can always be a little bit better.”


That “wholesome discontent” mantra has been fully embraced by Ellis’ team heading into the 2018 Tournament of Nations. The reigning World Cup champions followed their momentous triumph with a quarterfinal exit in the 2016 Summer Olympics, offering a prompt reminder that the Americans can’t trot out onto the pitch and expect to win.


“We have to remember that we followed winning the World Cup with getting one of our worst results in the Olympics,” Sauerbrunn said. “That really has lit a flame underneath us. We never want to feel what that felt like, and we absolutely want to win another World Cup because that was a fantastic feeling. The best thing about this team is that we’ve never really rested on our laurels. We’re always trying to reach a higher level.”


Ellis was even more blunt in her assertions that the primary objective, above all else, is for the U.S. WNT to win every competition in which it plays.


“Second place isn’t good enough, and that’s kind of been the expectation of this program,” Ellis said. “That’s what’s helped propel it so much. That’s part of the culture. An elite player is never satisfied, and I think that’s what makes them elite. Part of the players’ DNA is this constant demand to improve to be better and to win. If you couple the environment with the individuals, that’s what helps these players get this motivation.”


Test Prep


Make no mistake: the U.S. WNT approaches the Tournament of Nations with every intention of winning the tournament. The Americans fells short in this competition last season, taking second place behind Australia in the same four-team field as this year.


At the same time, the primary purpose of this competition is to serve as a test drive for the 2018 CONCACAF Women’s Championship in October, which functions as the region’s qualifying tournament for the 2019 FIFA World Cup next summer in France.


Consequently, the U.S. will approach these next three games — versus Japan, Brazil and Australia, respectively — as opportunities to improve collectively ahead of the year’s most important competition this fall.


“It’s a little of both: making sure that we perform well and shore up the small details, but also we want to get results,” Sauerbrunn said when asked how the U.S. would approach the Tournament of Nations with World Cup qualifying on the near horizon. “We’re playing some of the best teams in the world. When it comes to qualifying, it doesn’t really matter how you perform as long as you’re winning those games. We definitely want to keep making strides, but it’s finding a balance between the two.”


Rodriguez said the team’s main concentration was preparation for World Cup qualifying, which runs from Oct. 4-17 in Cary, North Carolina, as well as Texas cities Edinburg and Frisco.


“Our minds are in preparation for qualifiers,” Rodriguez said. “That’s the big thing ahead for us, so we’re going to hopefully take this tournament as a way to prepare as best as we can for World Cup qualifiers, because that’s where we really need to perform.”


Even so, Ellis was bullish in expressing the team’s desire to win the competition immediately at hand. Lifting the Tournament of Nations trophy, she says, could go a long way in propelling the team to success in World Cup qualifying.


“Right now the priority is performance and winning,” Ellis said. “We want to come in and win this tournament. I think it gives you psychologically a good feeling to have that.”