The U.S. women’s national soccer team qualified for the Olympics on Friday by claiming one of the region’s two berths. But to adequately prepare for the Summer Games, the Americans understood long ago the need to face heftier competition before arriving in Brazil.
The CONCACAF qualifying tournament was no more than a nuisance for the world champions, who swept five matches by a 23-0 margin.
With their Olympic place already assured, the Americans claimed regional bragging rights Sunday at BBVA Compass Stadium in Houston with a 2-0 victory over Canada, the only other world-class team in the eight-nation event. (Canada also advanced.)
Lindsey Horan scored on a 53rd-minute header and Tobin Heath added a 15-yard strike eight minutes later for the United States.
Before the qualifying tournament began Feb. 10, though, the U.S. Soccer Federation was already looking ahead. It organized the SheBelieves Cup, March 3-9, involving four of the top five teams in the FIFA rankings: the United States, Germany, France and England. The only absence is fourth-ranked Japan. Tampa, Nashville and Boca Raton, Fla., will stage doubleheaders.
One month later, the Americans will play two friendlies against Colombia, their round-of-16 foe at last year’s World Cup. The first meeting is April 6 in East Hartford, Conn.; the date and site of the second game are being finalized. Two additional matches are planned in early June and perhaps more ahead of the Olympics.
Since the introduction of major international women’s tournaments 25 years ago, no reigning World Cup champion has won the Olympic title the following summer.
“How do we do that? We bring in some of the best teams in the world to prep us,” U.S. Coach Jill Ellis said.
Furthermore, “We vet players in pressure situations,” as she did in the CONCACAF tournament by further integrating Horan, Crystal Dunn, 23, and Mallory Pugh, 17. Last summer, Ellis introduced Julie Johnston, 23, and Morgan Brian, 22, in the World Cup.
In broader terms, Ellis continued, “We said at the end of the World Cup: ‘Where we are today is not going to be good enough to win next summer.’ We’ve got to continue to evolve as the game is.”
The evolution has been necessitated, in part, by personnel changes. Lauren Holiday and Abby Wambach have retired. Megan Rapinoe tore her right ACL in December. Sydney Leroux and Amy Rodriguez are pregnant. Christie Rampone, 40, had minor knee surgery this winter.
Although less than a year has passed since the World Cup, the U.S. squad will feature at least five players new to top-tier competition, thus necessitating high-end friendlies.
The squad Ellis chose for the qualifying tournament probably won’t change much for the Olympics. One factor, though, is roster size: While CONCACAF permitted 20 players for the qualifiers, Olympic organizers will limit teams to 18 as part of the greater effort to contain the number of athletes in Brazil.
With fewer options, Ellis will want versatile players, such as Dunn, who is comfortable at forward, right wing and right back. The third-year Washington Spirit member equaled the U.S. scoring record last Monday with five goals against Puerto Rico.
Last year, because the World Cup fell early in the summer and the National Women’s Soccer League season had just started, Ellis set the roster almost two months ahead of time. With the Olympics late in the summer, NWSL playing time, performances and injuries could dictate roster selections.
Everyone on the qualifying roster will compete in the NWSL, except Pugh, who is finishing high school in Colorado before heading to UCLA. During gaps in the national team schedule, she will remain active by playing for a boys’ club team and for the U.S. under-20 squad.
“It’s still a long way off,” Ellis said, “and they understand it’s still a process of selection.”