Michelle Kaufman

Michelle Kaufman: Victory tour continues for U.S. Women’s World Cup champions

The lovefest for the U.S. Women’s World Cup champions continues Sunday at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, where more than 41,000 fans are expected for a friendly against Costa Rica, the largest crowd ever for a stand-alone women’s exhibition match.

It is the first of a 10-game victory tour for Team USA. The closest the team will get to South Florida is Orlando at 2 p.m. Oct. 25. It is also scheduled to play in Chattanooga, Tennessee; Detroit; Birmingham, Alabama; and Seattle. The rest of the dates are still being decided.

All 23 members of the World Cup team will be at Sunday’s game, though only 20 are expected to play. Sydney LeRoux is out after ankle surgery. Alex Morgan (knee surgery) is doubtful and Hope Solo is also recovering from a knee injury she sustained during the tournament.

The largest crowd for a women’s friendly was 35,817 on April 4 against New Zealand in St. Louis.

U.S. coach Jill Ellis dropped her medal off at her Palmetto Bay home and spent a few days with family, but hasn’t had much time to relax because she has been swamped with appearances. She said the tour won’t be all fun, either, as she is using it to begin evaluating players for the 2016 Olympics next summer in Rio de Janeiro. Qualifying is in February in Dallas and Houston, and two of eight teams from the CONCACAF region earn spots.

“As soon as we finished celebrating on the field after the World Cup final, part of my brain goes immediately to Olympic qualifying,” said Ellis, who last week signed a contract extension through the 2019 World Cup. “That’s just how I’m wired.

“My work is not over. I’m locking down quality opponents for our upcoming schedule, planning camp, scouting NWSL games for new players. The victory tour is a celebration of the summer and what the players have accomplished, but for me, as a coach, it’s a chance to see our players against quality opponents as we move forward.”

Sunday’s match will air at 2 p.m. on Fox Sports 1.

▪ Kaká gets call-up: Brazil coach Dunga thinks the team could use some experience and leadership heading into qualifying rounds for the 2018 World Cup, so he invited 33-year-old midfielder Kaká back to the squad in place of Liverpool star Philippe Coutinho.

Although the news came as a bit of a surprise, it makes perfect sense.

Kaká, who plays for Orlando City SC in Major League Soccer, is a three-time World Cup veteran and was on the 2002 championship team. But he was left off the roster for the 2015 Copa America and the 2014 World Cup — and the Brazilians disappointed in both tournaments.

They collapsed as hosts of the World Cup last summer and were eliminated by Paraguay on penalty kicks in the quarterfinals of the recent Copa America. The team won 10 consecutive friendlies when Dunga took over the team after the World Cup, but the Copa America performance — which included a group stage loss to Colombia — was proof the Selecao is not playing like a five-time World Cup champion.

Kaká was added to the team for upcoming friendlies against Costa Rica on Sept. 5 at New York’s Red Bull Arena, and Sept. 8 against the United States at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts.

“It’s a big day for me, so I’d like to share this great news with all of the supporters,” he told ESPN Brazil. “I’m back in the national team after almost a year, and I’m so happy for that. I think I can help the team in this period. We’re starting the qualification process for the next World Cup, so it’s an important period for everybody and also for me.

“I know the coaching staff very well and I know Dunga personally. I will do everything possible to help the new players on the team and to do my part for these friendlies, especially as we get ready for the [2018 World Cup qualifying] CONMEBOL qualifying, which will be very difficult.”

Brazil opens qualifying in October on the road against Copa America champion Chile, and then plays home matches against Venezuela in Fortaleza and against Peru in Salvador.

Dunga expects Kaká to play a key role this fall.

“We gave Coutinho a chance at the Copa America,” Dunga told reporters Thursday. “You cannot just build a team with youngsters, you also need experience to help them. Kaká can give the team experience and maturity during difficult times and he will work hard both and off the field.”

Kaká will be the oldest player on the roster, which also includes Hulk, Lucas, Oscar and Neymar, who is suspended from the World Cup qualifiers against Chile and Venezuela. Veteran Thiago Silva did not make the team.

▪ EPL game of the day: Chelsea vs. Manchester City (11 a.m., NBCSN). Defending champion Chelsea opened the season with a tie against Swansea, so it badly wants a win. Man City, with new signing Raheem Sterling, is coming off a win over West Bromwich.

Who’s leading

MLS: East — D.C. (44), NY Red Bulls (36), Columbus (34), Toronto and New England (31). West — Vancouver (42), L.A. (40), Dallas (38), K.C. (37), Portland (36).

NASL: Ottawa (19), Atlanta (14), Edmonton (12), Minnesota and New York Cosmos (9).

On the tube: Sunday — Crystal Palace vs. Arsenal (8:30 a.m., NBCSN), Manchester City vs. Chelsea (11 a.m., NBCSN), USA women vs. Costa Rica (2 p.m., Fox Sports 1), Seattle vs. Orlando City (5 p.m., ESPN2)

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