LYON, France -- The players on the U.S. national team have talked a lot about the journey that has taken them to Sunday's Women's World Cup final. What they haven't talked much about, though, is how and where that journey began.
For that you have to go back three summers, to the weeks following the team's loss to Sweden in the quarterfinals of the 2016 Olympics when coach Jill Ellis decided the program had to be overhauled.
The players, the formation, the tactics, everything.
"I remember talking to my staff and saying, 'We've got to make sure we're prepared for this piece of the evolution,'" Ellis said.
A couple of months later, Ellis added a talent identification position to the coaching staff and hired B.J. Snow, the man who succeeded her at UCLA, to fill it. Over the next two years, Ellis and Snow cast a wide net, calling more than 60 players into camp to audition for the World Cup team.
Before the team could start its climb, it had to hit rock bottom. That came early in 2017 in a 3-0 loss to France, the most one-sided defeat for the Americans in nearly 10 years.
"I remember thinking after that loss that we had a long way to go," said defender Kelley O'Hara, sitting in a sunny courtyard of the team's hilltop hotel, a converted 19th century convent with an altar in the lobby and two confessionals, repurposed as planters, flanking the front door.
"But that's kind of a good thing. You don't ever want to feel like it's easy all the time, and things just work out, and there's no obstacles, and there's no room for growth or need for growth. Jill, that's been her biggest thing: wanting to challenge this team and make this team evolve and grow, ever since 2016."
Just about everything the team had done up to that time was questioned. Players were moved from the positions they had always played to the ones they were best suited for. Crystal Dunn, a former National Women's Soccer League scoring champion, became a defender, as did O'Hara, who had played in two World Cups as a midfielder. Julie Ertz, a defender, moved into the midfield, and Carli Lloyd, a two-time world player of the year as a midfielder, became a forward.
Eleven of the players who made this World Cup roster weren't on the team four years ago in Canada.