FOXBOROUGH, MASS. – Morgan Brian and Kristie Mewis punctuated an emerging and ongoing youth movement within the United States women's national team setup simply by taking the field at the tail end of Saturday's 4-1 victory over Korea Republic.
Brian, a rising junior at Virginia sent into the match for her first international appearance, and Mewis, a midfielder-turned-left back making a star turn and scoring the opener in her native Massachusetts, represent the new generation of American players nurtured to reinforce one of the top sides in the world.
Their youth matters little in this interim period between major tournaments. Their promise and their talent warrant their inclusion as USA coach Tom Sermanni assesses his options and molds his squad with one eye on the future.
"It's awesome what Tom is doing," Mewis said. "He's giving new players experience. He's giving a lot of new players time. It's been such a great year so far. We're really growing as a team. And that's what's most important: to be able to grow as a team."
Sermanni entered his role at an ideal juncture to introduce blossoming professionals, college stars and foreign-based talents into his regular mix. The flexibility to shepherd new players through their international development doesn't really exist along the road to gold, but no such problems exist at this pressure-free stage of the calendar.
"It's always fun to see new faces," US forward Alex Morgan said. "You've seen Tom giving a lot of players their first caps. He's been our coach for, what, six months? It's just great to see players feeling confident and getting some more playing time because they didn't really in the Olympic and the World Cup years."
This new batch of hopefuls is following a well-worn path. For years, young players have come into the senior team based upon their exploits at college and youth levels due to the temporal nature of top-flight women's soccer in this country. But this pack has an unusual breadth of experience.
Promising talents have proceeded through the usual rigors of the Atlantic Coast Conference (and occasionally, other college conferences) for decades, but the best of the best are now getting tested in youth international tournaments. In years past those games were throwaways; now, the game has grown, the competition is better, and these games are suddenly essential to the cultivation of international-caliber talents.
"They're not just coming in suddenly, raw out of college, having just watched Abby Wambach on TV and have been in awe of these senior players," Sermanni said.
"They have played the game at a high level. They come in with a great deal of their own confidence and they're good players. The development system here has helped to develop better players at a younger age. They've come in and fitted in extremely well. They have added to the competitiveness of the squad."
Kristie Mewis made her USA debut against Scotland earlier this year (Photo: Tom Szczerbowski/USA TODAY Sports).
It is exactly the sort of competitiveness that benefits younger players at this vulnerable stage of their careers: a collective approach designed to make the entire unit better. This isn't a scenario where fringe players need to stake out their territory to protect their squad places ahead of the Olympics or the World Cup.
Maintaining a place in Sermanni's thoughts always carries some weight, but it does not overwhelm the proceedings as it tends to do ahead of those major tournaments.
"It's not been too hard until now," Sermanni said. "It's been a fairly easy progression, to be honest. They've come in and they've done very well. I've heard stories about how difficult it was at times for young players to come into this environment. To be honest, I've seen the opposite. The senior players have been welcoming and supportive.
The abundance of women's friendlies also gives Sermanni the latitude to hand capable players actual match action to accelerate their growth. It is why members of the next crop of national teamers - figures like Brian, Crystal Dunn, Lindsey Horan (a 19-year-old currently nurturing her talents at Paris Saint-Germain ), Julie Johnston and Mewis - have all stepped on the field at some point this year.
There are more players coming. Sermanni noted he is keeping an eye on a few NWSL players, and the competition means only a few will work their way into the mix on a more permanent basis.
"The reality is that you get picked on performance," Sermanni said. "If you're in the first year at college or somebody from the middle of Idaho who is a superstar at 16, then (you) get in the team. The team is based on performance at this level. Whether you're in the first year of college, the fourth year of college or whatever, if you're good enough to get in the team, you get in the team."
For the moment, Brian and Mewis have earned their places. Now they must devise a way to keep them.