WASHINGTON – First in line Monday at RFK Stadium to watch the U.S. women's national team was Derek Hightower, his wife and four soccer-playing daughters.
It was 9:15 a.m., 75 minutes before the gates would open for the practice session in preparation for Tuesday's friendly with Mexico, but the Hightowers were ready to scramble for their front-row seats. It was already a long day, which started with a 4 a.m. wake-up in their home on New York's Long Island.
With the next World Cup still two years away and the next Summer Olympics not until 2016, the national squad has a lighter schedule this year, and therefore fewer opportunities for fans to see them play at home. Last year, the team played 19 matches in the U.S. and Canada. Tuesday's match will be just its sixth this year in the U.S. and Canada.
"It's like Christmas Day," Hightower said. "That's why we're here."
On Monday, a few thousand fans watched as coach Tom Sermanni assembled his team for the first time since mid-June. Conspicuous on the sideline was star forward Alex Morgan, who sat with her left leg stretched out on a bench and knee encased in ice.
Playing for the Portland Thorns of the new National Women's Soccer League, Morgan sprained a ligament on Aug. 8. She came off the bench in the 71st minute Saturday in the 2-0 victory over the Western New York Flash in the inaugural NWSL title game. She will test her knee in pregame Tuesday night before her status is determined.
The 18-player roster includes three players who could make their national team debuts. Defender Leigh Ann Robinson and midfielder Erika Tymrak were called up from FC Kansas City. On Thursday, University of Illinois midfielder Vanessa DiBernardo was chosen as a replacement for Megan Rapinoe, who has a sore heel.
"We're bringing these players in here to have a look at them," Sermanni said. "My aim, whether it works out or not, is to give (them) playing time."
Getting new players on the field is likely to depend on the scoreboard. The Americans, ranked No. 1 in the world, have not been beaten in 34 straight matches dating to a 1-0 loss to Japan in the Algarve Cup semifinals in Portugal on March 5, 2012. During the streak, the U.S. has gone 29-0-5, outscoring the opposition 110-26.
Also at stake for the U.S. is its 72-match unbeaten streak on home soil, which dates to a 3-1 loss to Denmark in Philadelphia on Nov. 6, 2004.
"The tradition of this team is we play to win, no matter what the game is, no matter what it means," midfielder Carli Lloyd said. "Yeah, this is a friendly, but we're still here to win."
With the first hat trick of her international career, Lloyd was the star of a 4-0 victory the last time the U.S. played Mexico, on Jan. 24 of last year. It improved the U.S. record in the series to 26-1-1.
Ranked No. 24 in the world by FIFA, Mexico is led by 34-year-old Maribel Dominguez, who has 74 goals in 114 international starts. The priorities for the U.S. on Tuesday will be to keep Dominguez in check, get a quick lead, and get a look at the new players.
"Now is the best time to bring new players in. The only way that you get adjusted and acclimated to this environment is if you're in it and playing on a daily basis," Lloyd said. "It is a bit of a jump from the NWSL and other previous leagues. But it's good. It keeps the group competitive."