MANHATTAN BEACH, Calif. — The all-star cast, for the most part, is back together.
It is a tight group. Talent aside, the camaraderie, chemistry and hunger alone would carry the sport’s top-ranked team to great heights.
Now added to the mix — and blending in quite nicely — are two players who have been included in the broader setup for years but did not make the World Cup squad: forward Lynn Williams and defensive midfielder Andi Sullivan.
“We were talking the other day about how we are on the outside of things because there is such a strong culture and history here,” said Sullivan, from Lorton, Va., and the Washington Spirit. “They all went to the World Cup and have that connection. Lynn and I saw it from an outsider’s perspective, so we are sometimes playing catch-up a little bit.”
Both are up to speed in the eight-team Concacaf qualifying tournament, which began with group play at two Texas locations, and predictably, with three easy U.S. victories.
The Americans, unbeaten for more than 13 months, would clinch an Olympic berth by defeating 26th-ranked Mexico on Friday in Carson, Calif. Canada and Costa Rica will vie for the other ticket to Tokyo this summer.
Williams, 26, totaled two goals and three assists in the first two matches and Sullivan, 24, logged 90 minutes in the second game.
Neither is a stranger to the fine-tuned operation. Sullivan, a South County High and Stanford graduate, has been in training camps semi-regularly for two years after rising through the junior ranks. Williams scored her first national team goal 3½ years ago and has been in and out of the mix.
“There is a familiarity” with the veteran players, Williams said. “I am not a scared little girl in the corner.”
Nor should she be. She has made 23 U.S. appearances (with eight goals) and joins a roster that includes four teammates from the North Carolina Courage, the National Women’s Soccer League champion. Sullivan (16 U.S. matches) reconnected with Spirit teammate Rose Lavelle, a World Cup breakout star.
“It makes them stronger that they have that unity and bond, but now the whole group is so focused on the Olympics that it’s learning experiences they are willing to share,” Sullivan said of the holdovers. “It’s our gain. The way they communicate is so helpful and effective. And they want me there with them. If there is ever a disconnect, we are on it very quickly.”
Sullivan and Williams are fueled in part by missing out on the World Cup.
“I don’t really think about the World Cup all the time. If I did, I think I would go into a mental spiral,” Williams said, laughing. “But there is a part of me that says, ‘Well, I didn’t make the World Cup. They have something that bonds them for life, and I am just trying to break into that.’ ”
They are not the only ones. The team has a new coach, Vlatko Andonovski, who, in his first big decision since succeeding Jill Ellis this past fall, cut four World Cup players from the Olympic qualifying squad. A fifth, superstar forward Alex Morgan, is expecting her first child this spring.
A longtime NWSL coach, Andonovski is familiar with Sullivan and Williams. In selecting this roster, he chose Sullivan he chose Sullivan to be Julie Ertz’s backup over World Cup members Morgan Brian and Allie Long.
Williams helps fill the void left by Morgan, who has pledged to return for the Olympics. (On Wednesday, her baby bump visible, she trained with the team.)
With speed, athletic ability and a scoring touch, Williams is a versatile weapon. She can raid the flanks or make piercing central runs, adding depth to an attack featuring wingers Megan Rapinoe, Tobin Heath and Christen Press and striker Carli Lloyd, who, at 37, shows few signs of letting up.
In the group opener, Williams had a goal and assist in a 4-0 victory over Haiti. Three days later, Williams added a goal and two assists during an 8-0 rout of Panama. In her last appearance in 2019, she scored twice in a 6-0 friendly triumph over Costa Rica.
Williams arrived at training camp last month from an NWSL offseason assignment in Australia, where wildfires have devastated the country. She plans to return next week.
From her apartment outside Sydney, she said she has a clear view of the city skyline. At the height of the fires, however, smoke obscured the view and set off alarms in the building.
For health reasons, some training sessions and matches were postponed. In one game that proceeded as scheduled, Williams said, “I could taste the smoke, and it was hard to breathe after five minutes.”
She is among 22 Americans playing in Australia but the only one to receive a U.S. call-up.
Sullivan, entering her third NWSL season, allows Andonovski to rest Ertz or drop the veteran onto the back line. Sullivan is also capable of playing in an advanced midfield role, though there is heavy competition for playing time with Lavelle, Lindsey Horan and Sam Mewis.
How Sullivan and Williams perform in this tournament will go a long way toward assessing their chances of making the squad this summer. That, of course, is assuming the Americans win Friday.
There are only 18 Olympic roster slots available, five fewer than the World Cup allows and two fewer than allotted for the qualifiers.
“It’s definitely a veteran squad, but there is some freshness because it’s a new coaching staff,” Sullivan said. “There is a new energy and opportunity here.”
Friday in Carson, Calif.
Canada vs. Costa Rica, 7 p.m. (Fox Soccer Plus)
United States vs. Mexico, 10 p.m. (Fox Sports 1)
Sunday’s final, 6 p.m. (FS2)