On Sunday, New Jersey will help redefine home-field advantage for a small subset of a US Women's National Team preparing for the global stage.
The US will kick off on Sunday afternoon (2:30 p.m. ET, ESPN 2) against Mexico at Red Bull Arena for the club's sendoff match preceding its participation in the FIFA Women's World Cup tournament in Germany later this month. Of the 21 players selected to represent the US, five players -- defender and team captain Christie Rampone, back-up goalkeeper Jill Loyden, and midfielders Carli Lloyd, Heather O’Reilly, and Tobin Heath -- hail from the Garden State.
Though Lloyd, a Delran, N.J. native and Rutgers alum, can boast international achievements such as scoring the golden goal in overtime that clinched a gold medal for the US at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, she still freely admits receiving an extra boost from participating in the USWNT's sendoff match near her old stomping grounds.
"I’m excited to be back home in Jersey playing in front of the the home crowd," said Lloyd. "It’s sentimental to play the last game in Jersey, my home state. I’ve got friends and family coming to the game, so that will be fun. Jersey’s a great state for soccer."
Lloyd also admits an ongoing friendly rivalry between the New Jersey quintet fueled by each player's hometown, which fall as far north as Basking Ridge and as far south as Vineland.
"We produced good players – north and south," said Lloyd. "I’m more from the south, but it’s a great environment. I always think the south’s a bit better than the north, but I also went to Rutgers as well. At the end of the day, we’re all one. But we all joke around on the team bus with each other."
While the Jersey quintet keeps things cordial in debating north-south dominance, they will likely leave that aside for the club's rematch against Mexico on Sunday. All five players were among the US side that lost to Mexico in last year's CONCACAF Gold Cup semifinal round. That loss forced the US to qualify for the Women's World Cup with the final at-large bid received through a home-and-home series against Italy.
"Every time we step on the field, we want to win," said Lloyd. "It’s embedded in the culture. And we play to compete and we’re gonna go out there and try to win on Sunday. But we’re also looking at it as our last preparation before we head over to Germany. It’s very important that we stay together. We work on the things we’ve been working on."
USWNT head coach Pia Sundhage admitted during Friday's practice that she intends to focus on establishing the club's rhythm against Mexico in hopes of heading to Germany at full strength.
"Soccer is feelings and about making decisions every single second," said Sundhage. "If you make the right decisions, we're on the same page. Sometimes slow down the game, sometimes speed up the game. If you add that to everything that makes this team so successful with attitude, run of people, being physical -- that's a good mix. We worked on that for four years and hopefully it pays off."
Most importantly, the US will need to keep Sunday's friendly in perspective and not allow the specter of last year's Gold Cup loss to creep in against a Mexico side also in preparation for this summer's World Cup festivities.
"This is the journey," said Lloyd. "This is what it’s all about. The final prize is over in Germany. We just have to come together and enjoy it and have fun. I think that’s one of the biggest things. And score some good goals."