The Tournament of Nations could easily be mistaken for the latter stages of the FIFA Women’s World Cup.
You have the world number one — the United States, the powerhouses who, in the history of FIFA’s World Rankings, have never gone lower than number two.
You have the current (and six-time) South American champions — Brazil, who sit one spot above Australia in the FIFA rankings.
You have Japan, the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup winners and back-to-back AFC Women’s Asian Cup champions.
And you have the Westfield Matildas — the defending Tournament of Nations champions who are making waves at the top level of the international stage.
“Five years ago, we wouldn’t have even been invited to a tournament like this,” explained former Westfield Matilda Sarah Walsh to matildas.footballaustralia.com.au.
WATCH THE WESTFIELD MATILDAS IN ACTION AT THE TOURNAMENT OF NATIONS WHEN THEY TAKE ON BRAZIL, USA AND JAPAN FROM 27 JULY LIVE ON FOX SPORTS
“US Soccer [the tournament organisers] are trying to attract a huge number of fans, pack out stadiums and they want the Tournament of Nations to be a display of quality football.
“To be in the mix with really talks to where this team is at — how they’re respected in world football. That’s why we’re in the tournament.”
The 2017 edition of the Tournament of Nations saw the Westfield Matildas stun their then more fancied opponents, beating the US for the first time ever, stunning Japan with a Sam Kerr-inspired attacking masterclass and then putting six goals past Brazil to seal the trophy.
It was a string of performances and results that propelled the team into the hearts and minds of Australian sports fans.
And with the 2018 Tournament of Nations commencing on Friday (6.15am AEST versus Brazil, live on Fox Sports), expectations are building as the Westfield Matildas look towards the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup.
“To see us win [the Tournament of Nations] again would be a real statement of intent,” said Walsh, who scored 31 goals in 70 appearances for the national team, including scoring at the 2007 FIFA Women’s World Cup as the Westfield Matildas progressed through the group stage.
“It says something that we’re all really disappointed they didn’t win the Asian Cup [in April]. We’re expected to win [major tournaments] now.
“We’ve transitioned from underdogs in a really short space of time to now being a team expected to win tournaments.
“That’s not being arrogant or over confident, I think the team has all the tools to win it. [And] with the context of the Women’s World Cup [in June-July 2019], they need to win this because there’s a difference between winning gams and winning tournaments.”
The opportunity to play high quality opponents leading into a Women’s World Cup — and in doing so cement the Westfield Matildas as contenders going into big events — is a huge motivating factor.
So too is the opportunity to avenge demons.
That was done in 2017.
The 25 previous winless games against the United States were put to bed with Tameka Butt’s goal in the 1-0 win. In 2018 there is a chance to prove this was no fluke.
Also last year, the 2016 Olympics scars from losing to Brazil in a quarter-final penalty shootout were aided by a romping 6-1 win in Los Angeles.
This time around, there is a chance for the Westfield Matildas to almost instantly overcome the loss to Japan in the Women’s Asian Cup final.
“I cannot wait to watch the Japan v Australia match,” said Walsh, declaring this test as her most anticipated of the Tournament of Nations.
“I don’t want to reflect too much on the Asian Cup, but that Thailand semi-final was such a rollercoaster where they nearly dropped their bundle but what I love about this team is that a game like that doesn’t define them.
“I thought they outplayed Japan in the final but just couldn't put goals away — they weren’t clinical in the final third. If they clean that up, then we’re having a very different conversation.”
She added: “The fact this team has been successful, the way they go about things, the stars they have, these are factors have all contributed.
“The time has been right for the Matildas and it’s been really heartening to see them getting the success and recognition they deserve for taking this to a level I didn’t see getting there.”
2018 Tournament of Nations – Westfield Matildas Match Schedule
Brazil v Westfield Matildas
Date: Thursday, 26 July 2018 (local)
Venue: Children’s Mercy Park, Kansas City, Kansas
Kick-off: 3.15pm (local) (6.15am AEST – Friday, 27 July 2018)
Broadcast: LIVE in Australia on FOX SPORTS 507
USA v Westfield Matildas
Date: Sunday, 29 July 2018 (local)
Venue: Pratt & Whitney Stadium, East Hartford, Connecticut
Kick-off: 7pm (local) (9am AEST – Monday, 30 July 2018)
Broadcast: LIVE in Australia on FOX SPORTS 505
Westfield Matildas v Japan
Date: Thursday, 2 August 2018 (local)
Venue: Toyota Park, Bridgeview, Illinois
Kick-off: 4.45pm (local) (7.45am AEST – Friday, 3 August 2018)
Broadcast: LIVE in Australia on FOX SPORTS 505