Football Ferns' new era begins with a focus on fostering competition for places
When the Football Ferns take on the United States on Saturday and Wednesday (NZ time), it will mark the start of a new era.
In their sights are the 2019 World Cup, to be held in France, and the 2020 Olympics, in Tokyo, where the aim will be to do better than before.
But as they embark on their first assignment since the Cyprus Cup in March, they know achievements like those are a long way away.
"The reality is we weren't good enough at last year's Olympics to beat No 1 and No 3 in the world [the United States and France], but we want to be good enough, so we have to keep striving forward," said coach Tony Readings, who is contracted through the end of the 2019 World Cup.
"And as much as the team took massive strides in the past four years, and that has laid a good foundation for us, the world of women's football is just growing so meteorically every single year, with more professional leagues and more money going into the game, so we have to keep revolutionising what we do."
One part of that revolution is bringing in some new faces. Of the 23 players Readings has selected for these games, five are yet to win a cap, and another six have five or less. There are also 11 who have 45 or more, led by Ria Percival (124) and captain Ali Riley (109), and defender Meikayla Moore between the two groups, with 20.
The inexperienced group includes goalkeeper Anna Leat, midfielder Malia Steinmetz, and defender Liz Anton, who are all part of the current national under-20 setup, and Readings said it was important to blood those players early.
"The younger ones that have come into the squad, we want to make sure we're preparing them for professional football as well - exposing them to the highest standards, the best players, and showing them the level they need to compete at - because moving forward for the Ferns, it will make a big difference for us if we have a lot more competition for places.
"We want players to be challenged continuously and that's what we're hoping is going to happen now. We've picked a bigger squad, we've picked players who we do feel have the potential to get in the squad in 2019 and 2020 and beyond, and we do need that competition for places, because otherwise it becomes too comfortable in the environment and players stop pushing and working as hard as they should.
"If you've got someone chasing you, you're going to dig that bit deeper and find some better levels of performance, or you're a target for a young player coming in, and they're going to work as hard as they can to surpass you."
The search for depth is nothing new, but it has become more important, given that four players have retired in the year since the Rio Olympics, depriving the team of 357 games worth of experience.
First there was Sarah Gregorius, last Christmas; then there was long-time captain Abby Erceg in February, taking a stand in search of better support for her amateur teammates; Jasmine Pereira, one of those teammates, who found she could no longer afford football the attention it demanded, given her other commitments; and most recently, Katie Duncan.
Going up against the US, the world No 1, will be a real challenge for the new-look Football Ferns, and, for the younger, less-experienced members of their squad, a real-eye opener, but even so, their aims remain the same.
"When we come in, we've always got two goals," said Readings.
"One is to win the match, and that will be no different against America. The other one is to experiment, bring new players in, try new things with our system. We're always experimenting - sometimes more wholesale, sometimes more around the fringes."
More than anything else, these games will let the team know exactly where they stand, as they begin their journey towards the World Cup, where a first win and advancing out of their group will be the target.
Football Ferns squad for United States friendlies
Goalkeepers: Anna Leat, Erin Nayler, Vic Esson
Defenders: Ali Riley, Anna Green, CJ Bott, Rebekah Stott, Ria Percival, Liz Anton, Meikayla Moore
Midfielders: Annalie Longo, Betsy Hassett, Daisy Cleverley, Katie Bowen, Kirsty Yallop, Malia Steinmetz, Olivia Chance
Forwards: Aimee Phillips, Hannah Wilkinson, Jane Barnett, Katie Rood, Martine Puketapu, Rosie White
Game one: Saturday, 2pm (NZ time); Dick's Sporting Goods Park; Denver, Colorado
Game two: Wednesday, 11.30am (NZ time); Nippert Stadium; Cincinnati, Ohio