Miami (AFP) – The United States will be looking to fine-tune their preparations for next year’s Women’s World Cup on Thursday as the defending champions head into the final round of qualifiers on the back of a 21-game unbeaten streak.

Two years ago, the all-conquering US women were left stunned after being bundled out of the Olympics in the quarter-finals by Sweden, the first time ever the four-time champions left the Olympics without a medal.

Since that exit in Brazil, coach Jill Ellis has blooded several new faces in her squad while successfully implementing tactical variations which ensure they remain most pundits’ favourites for next year’s World Cup in France.

The US team have gone 21 straight games unbeaten since 2017, with their last loss coming against Australia.

Ellis, whose team opens against Mexico in Cary, North Carolina, on Thursday, says placing emphasis on performance rather than reputation has been a key to her team’s renewal.

“It’s not about how many caps you have or what you’ve done in the past, but what are you doing in this moment and what are you prepared to do for the future,” Ellis said in 2016.

“It’s going to make for a healthy competitive environment and force players outside of their comfort levels and these players are at their best when they’re pushed.”

Two years later and the results of that approach speak for themselves. Ellis’s willingness to experiment has ultimately left her with a tighter-knit squad with a clear sense of purpose.

Megan Rapinoe, the veteran midfielder who played in both the victorious 2012 Olympic team and the 2015 World Cup-winning side, said the team had benefited from the upheaval.

“The last two years, there was so much changeover with the team, it was so broad with so many different players and formations and lineups, and it sort of made it purposely chaotic,” Rapinoe said.

“I think it forced us individually and as a team to figure it out, and everyone who has figured it out is now narrowed into this group here at qualifying and we’re working well with each other.

“It was challenging and sometimes frustrating, but we’re out on the other side of it and much better for it.”

The US will start as heavy favourites to obtain qualification. Only three other teams from CONCACAF — Canada, Costa Rica, and Mexico — are ranked in the top 50 women’s teams.

The US women are drawn in Group A of CONCACAF’s final round of qualifying along with Mexico, Trinidad and Tobago and Panama.

Group B includes Canada, Jamaica, Costa Rica and Cuba.

The top two teams from each group advance to semi-finals which will take place in Frisco, Texas, on October 14 before the final and third place play-off three days later at the same venue.

The two finalists plus the winner of the third place playoff qualify automatically for France while the losers will face a further playoff against a side from South America.