ON THE ROAD TO RIO
A wonderful and historic 2015 for the U.S. Women’s National Team is in the past now, filed away as hundreds of photographs, video clips and goose-bump inducing memories. The confetti has been swept away, the Victory Tour is over, and long-time stars have retired.
It’s an ending, and a beginning, and no one knows that more than U.S. head coach Jill Ellis.
When asked during the a press conference before a match on the post-World Cup Victory Tour how she planned to keep the team, and herself, motivated after reaching the “top of the mountain,” Ellis paused, considered the question for a moment and answered:
“Well, I’m no mountaineer,” she said. “But I do know that the thing about reaching the top of a mountain is that there’s always another one to climb.”
Thus, the climb begins and the USA will have a busy schedule in 2016. An extended training camp in January will end with a match against Ireland, followed soon after by the 2016 CONCACAF Women's Olympic Qualifying Championship running from Feb. 10-21 in Frisco and Houston, Texas, that will send two teams to Rio. The USA will then host the historic #SheBelieves Cup featuring four of the top five women’s national teams in the world as Germany, France and England come to the southeast to play three doubleheaders. The U.S. players will then head to their NWSL clubs in the spring, but will play several friendlies leading into the Olympics should all go well in Texas.
While a solid core of veterans from the “15ers” are back to pursue more Olympic glory, there will be quite a few new faces in the U.S. team competing for roster spots. Ellis and her staff are relishing the new challenge while not forgetting to emphasize the qualities that have made the U.S. program a world power for years.
“We are all about acknowledging what we’ve accomplished and taking away the positives and the lessons we’ve learned,’ said Ellis. “But now it’s about hitting the reset button and building again because it’s a new challenge and a new team with a slightly different identity. It’s about always pushing the needle. It’s getting the new players up to speed on our processes and expectations, which is part the coach’s responsibility and part players’ responsibility.”
The players responsibilities will also include doing their best to make increasingly smaller rosters (18 for friendlies, 20 for Olympic qualifying and 18 for the Olympics itself). The coaching staff’s increasingly difficult job will be to choose those rosters.
Those opportunities are coming fast on a team where you can be one of the best players in the world at your position and still struggle for playing time, but that’s the kind of competitive dynamic that will add fuel to the team moving forward on a quest to a) qualify for the Olympics and b) become the first country to ever win the World Cup and Olympics back-to-back.
The USA has won the last three Olympic gold medals and four overall, after taking home silver in 2000 and winning the inaugural gold medal for women’s soccer in 1996, but now also have that World Cup Trophy that had eluded the team since 1999.
At the end of 2014, the U.S. Women dropped from the top spot in the FIFA Women’s World Rankings, a position it had held for seven years, to second, but regained it in July of 2015. The U.S. team has lost just 14 matches in regulation since the end of the 2003 FIFA Women’s World Cup and the American women will look to keep building the tradition that has made the USA one of the most successful women’s soccer nations in history.
OLYMPIC ROSTER SPOTS UP FOR GRABS
While the U.S. player pool is as deep as ever, the challenge of putting together the best mix of young talent and experienced veterans is one that many coaches face. The USA will of course be relying extensively on the pool of talent that took them to the World Cup title, but there is an exciting infusion of young players coming into the squad.
In goal, the USA has depth that most countries would envy. Long-time starter Hope Solo has broken all of the U.S. Soccer goalkeeping records and is still at the top of her game. She has a firm hold on No. 1 spot, but Ashlyn Harris and Alyssa Naeher – who have excellent club experience and who have been in the WNT programs for quite some time – continue to push for playing time.
The back line from the Women’s World Cup that played so well in front of Solo, piling up 539 consecutive shutout minutes, all return for another run at gold. Center-backs Julie Johnston and Becky Sauerbrunn have proved to be a powerful partnership while outside backs Ali Krieger and Meghan Klingenberg contribute on both ends of the field. Kelley O’Hara, who was a starting outside back in the 2012 Olympics, has the experience to play multiple roles, on defense or at flank midfield. Her goal in the Women’s World Cup semifinal against Germany was one of the highlights of the tournament. Jaelene Hinkle emerged at the end of 2015 as a viable option at left back as well.
The USA’s depth at center-back features Emily Sonnett, the #1 pick in the 2016 NWSL Draft, who has shown promise early in her career, as well as Whitney Engen, who has complied excellent experience in pro leagues abroad and at home. Veteran Christie Rampone made a successful final run at a final Women’s World Cup title last year, but she isn’t done yet. The long-time U.S. captain and most capped active player in the world, who will be out for the first part of 2016 after undergoing knee surgery at the end of last year, will have the chance to work her way back to fitness through NWSL league play.
The USA boasts several excellent combinations of center midfielders. Veteran Carli Lloyd, who famously scored both goals in the 2-1 victory against Japan in the 2012 Olympic gold medal game and bagged the winner in overtime in the 1-0 victory against Brazil in the 2008 Olympic gold medal game, is playing some of the best soccer of her career. Her epic performance in Canada in 2015, which of course included the hat trick in the Women’s World Cup Final, led to her being named the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Player of the Year, the third American so honored. Midfielder Morgan Brian, the youngest player on the 2015 WWC Team, had a breakout tournament and has played with tremendous class and effectiveness.
Lindsey Horan, the first American female to skip college and turn professional, has returned to the USA from France and is showing signs of being the heir-apparent to the retired Lauren Holiday at holding midfield. Six-foot Samantha Mewis has also emerged and brings some special talents to the center-midfield positon, as does Mallory Pugh, the captain of the U.S. Under-20 Women’s National Team who at 17 one of the youngest WNT call-ups in recent years.
The USA is also well stocked at flank midfield/winger positions. The dynamic and skillful Tobin Heath had a fantastic Women’s World Cup which ended with her sealing the championship game with a goal while young star Crystal Dunn – a member of the USA’s 2012 U-20 Women’s World Cup champions – used her exclusion from the Women’s World Cup roster to fuel a phenomenal club season in 2015. She is now poised to make an impact on the international level, having scored several times on the Victory Tour. Veteran Heather O’Reilly has been a consistent positive presence at right midfield over the years and still holds the U.S. record for consecutive games played as she zooms past 200 caps. She’s being pushed by some younger players, including Stephanie McCaffrey, who scored in her debut at the end of 2015 against Brazil and has shown some devastating one-on-one abilities.
The crafty and exciting Megan Rapinoe, who was a breakout star at the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup and continued her great run at the 2012 Olympics and the 2015 Women’s World Cup, tore her ACL in December of 2015 and faces a tough road to be able to play in the summer of 2016.
While the world’s all-time leading goal scorer Abby Wambach has retired, the USA is still spoiled with a bevy of talented scorers. Alex Morgan – perhaps the fastest and most powerful runner at goal in the world – will now be even more of a focal point of the U.S. attack as she stretches teams all over the field. Her timely and dynamic goal scoring has made her a tremendous fan favorite in the USA and around the world. Christen Press also had an excellent 2015, and scored the game-winner in the opening WWC match against Australia. She has proven to be a consistent scorer at the international level as well while bringing a different skill set to the front line. Press has also shown the ability to play flank midfield.
Two U.S. strikers will be off the field for most of 2016 due to pregnancy with Amy Rodriguez having her second child and Sydney Leroux her first.
It is clear the USA has the foundation and talent to make a run at another Olympic title, but as is the case every year, the competition is constantly improving, and the target is always on the Americans’ back. Fortunately, those are challenges that the U.S. players relish as they look to continue their current upward trend in popularity while enhancing the profile of the women’s game at home and abroad.