Road To Rio: CONCACAF Qualifiers

Last year I chronicled the United States Women’s National Team’s 2015 Women’s World Cup journey from qualifiers in the fall of 2014 to July 5, 2015 where “The Gals” dominated Japan in a 5-2 victory to secure the U.S.’s first World Cup victory in 16 years. Fortunately for the USWNT, there’s another major tournament this summer, the 2016 Rio Olympics. Unlike in men’s soccer where the U-23 national teams compete in the games, the women send their senior national teams to battle for Olympic gold. You see, in soccer, the Olympics aren’t as important as the World Cup, which is the reason the men only send their U-23 squads. Of course, the men in general have more tournaments to compete in, and like in most sports, men have more opportunities financially and physically (but hopefully that begins to change). Nonetheless, women’s soccer has and will be a bright spot for the United States in the Olympics this summer as the U.S. punched their ticket to Rio Friday night with a 5-0 win against Trinidad & Tobago.

Like I said, the Olympics aren’t as big of a deal as the World Cup so I’m not going to hype this summer tournament like I did last year. Before the U.S. women won the World Cup, they hadn’t won it since 1999, whereas the U.S. has won gold at the past 3 Olympic games. However, that being said, no women’s team has ever won a World Cup and then won gold at the Olympics the following year. If the U.S. wins gold in Rio, they will be the first team to do it. So if you’re looking for any story lines, there’s that.

Since the World Cup victory though, the roster has changed greatly for the USWNT. Shannon Boxx, Lori Chalupny, Lauren Holiday, and Abby Wambach have all retired. Sydney Leroux and Amy Rodriguez will be skipping the Olympics this summer due to the births of their first and second children, respectively. Then there’s Christie Rampone and Megan Rapinoe whose Olympic roster statuses are in question due to injury. Through 2015 Rampone dealt with nagging knee and back injuries that paved way for defender Julie Johnston to take center stage in Canada last summer. Since December, she has been out with a bone bruise in her left knee. Megan Rapinoe tore her ACL during training in December before a match between the USA and Trinidad & Tobago that was ultimately cancelled because of poor field conditions at Hawaii’s Aloha Stadium. Rapinoe had surgery back in December and has been in rehab mode since to hopefully be well enough to earn a spot on the Rio 2016 roster and play in the games. In total though, 8 out of 23 players from the WWC roster are either out for the Olympics or in question. The Olympics has a catch though. Only 18 players are allowed on the official roster (with 3 alternates available). Despite the smaller roster number, U.S. Coach Jill Ellis brought a few new players into the mix during January camp. She also opted for many fresh faces to compete in the qualifying tournament in favor of active and healthy veterans Heather O’Reilly and Whitney Engen (both part of the World Cup winning team) and there’s a few you should watch out for leading up to the Olympics.

17 year old Mallory Pugh earned her first senior national team call-up during January camp and was subsequently named to the CONCACAF Qualifying Tournament roster. She got her first cap when the USA played the Republic of Ireland in a friendly on January 23rd in front of 23,000+ at San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium. She entered the game in the 58th minute for Alex Morgan who earned her 100th cap that day. In a passing of the torch moment, the future UCLA Bruin became the youngest player to debut for the USWNT since 2005. She also scored a goal during the 83rd minute to put the USA up 5-0. During qualifying, Pugh played in all 5 matches and settled into the level of play. Her speed and play-making ability sparked the U.S. offensive attack on several occasions. She even earned 3 assists throughout the tournament. By the end of the tournament, Pugh played as a starter. If she makes the Olympic roster, she’ll definitely be a name to watch out for in Rio.

Lindsey Horan is another name to pay attention to as time progresses. Horan, only 21 years of age, opted to forego college at women’s soccer powerhouse, UNC, to play professionally for the past 3 years in France for Paris-Saint Germain. She saw time with the USWNT during camps in the past and earned her first cap back in 2013 at the Algarve Cup. Playing her whole life as a forward, Horan has recently stepped into the defensive center mid spot left vacant by retiree Lauren Holiday. At first with Holiday’s, retirement I was a little concerned because of the tough shoes to fill, but I’ve been incredibly impressed with Horan’s play. She’s created a chemistry on the pitch with fellow center-mid Morgan Brian, who played her way into a starting role during the World Cup last summer. She’s also maintained possession, created offense, and quarterbacked the best team in the world throughout her time on the field. Not to mention, her 5’9 frame and goal-scoring/heading capabilities create an offense threat on the attack and set pieces. At this point I would be shocked if Horan didn’t make the Olympic roster because she seems to have the defensive center mid position on lock and as recent camp call-up Rose Lavelle would say, she’s “The Great Horan”.

Massachusetts born Stephanie McCaffrey and Samantha Mewis were also two new additions to the CONCACAF Qualifying Tournament roster. Both players saw limited time during tournament play but made an impact on the national team leading up to Olympic qualifying. McCaffrey earned her first cap in October during the Victory Tour where she also notched her first goal during the final minute of stoppage time in the match against Brazil in Orlando. For the national team, most of McCaffrey’s appearances have been as a forward/mid on the wings, predominantly the right side. She makes great runs and expands the width of the offense, while aiding in the attack. Mewis has played a center mid role in her recent national team appearances. It seems like she’s been in a competition for that center mid field role along with Lindsey Horan and Morgan Brian. At 6’0 tall, Mewis has a height advantage much like Horan when it comes to set pieces, but Horan has been crushing any competition she has for the position, including Mewis. Unlike her fellow “masshole”, Steph McCaffrey, Mewis’s first cap came in December 2014, but during qualifying last week, she finally scored her first goal against Puerto Rico.

Defenders Jaelene Hinkle and Emily Sonnett made the qualifying tournament roster as well. Like McCaffrey and Mewis, both saw limited action in the tournament since the USWNT already has a strong defensive core with Ali Krieger, Kelley O’Hara, Julie Johnston, Becky Sauerbrunn, and Meghan Klingenberg getting much of the defensive playing time. Both players did earn starts in the match against Puerto Rico, which saw a much different back line than in prior matches. Hinkle, an outside back, earned her first cap during the Victory Tour and has been a call-up ever since. With Chalupny retiring, the USWNT seems to be looking to fill a void left by the former outside back, which is where Hinkle fits into the mix. Sonnett also earned her first cap during the Victory Tour and was recently drafted first overall in the 2016 NWSL Draft to the Portland Thorns. It seems the center back made the Olympic qualifying roster in favor of Whitney Engen who has been in the national team system for a while and was on the 2015 WWC roster. She has a ways to go before she replaces Johnston and Sauerbrunn, but she gained experience during the tournament and played solid throughout.

Lastly, the  new additions to the tournament roster wouldn’t have been complete without the familiar face of Crystal Dunn. As the final cut from the 2015 WWC roster, the UNC grad seems to have finally guaranteed her place on the national team. Dunn’s ride on the team so far has been bumpy. She received her first cap in 2013 and primarily played in the outside back position. She experienced some injuries during 2014 which slightly set her back and was left off the World Cup roster in favor of several veterans. Her response was one of the most inspiring efforts of the past year. Instead of defense, she played in the forward position for her NWSL team, the Washington Spirit, during the 2015 season and lead the league in scoring with 15 goals earning her the 2015 NWSL Golden Boot and MVP awards. Dunn was called up to the national team as a mid/forward during the Victory Tour in September and had a goal and 2 assists in her first game back after being left off the World Cup roster. Since being left off the roster, Dunn has appeared in every match the USWNT has played since September and has scored 10 goals and 4 assists in that time. During qualifying, Dunn recorded a five goal performance against Puerto Rico becoming the third player to achieve that mark on the USWNT and winning her the Golden Boot Award for the tournament. As you can see, she’s back with fire and she’s here to stay. Like Horan, there’s no question in my mind about Dunn making the Olympic roster, so keep your eye out for her and an abundance of puns using her last name.

With the mix of old and new at the CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying Tournament the USWNT not only guaranteed their spot at the Olympics but also won in the final 2-0 yesterday against a gritty Canadian team, who will also appear in Rio. The goals came from former PSG teammates Lindsey Horan and Tobin Heath during the second half of play. Becky Sauerbrunn also received her 100th cap by playing in the match.

Unlike last year, I won’t be summarizing each match leading up to Rio, but I will be posting here and there with news and developments on the team, especially once the roster is released. In the following months USWNT fans can look forward to the She Believes Cup, which will take the place of the USWNT’s typical beginning of March trip to the Algarve Cup in Portugal. It starts next week. The She Believes Cup takes place Stateside and will feature matches against three of the world’s top ten teams, Germany (March 9th), France (March 6th), and England (March 3rd). It should be a great test for the USWNT leading up to Rio. Both France and Germany will be at the Olympics as well (England cannot compete in the Olympics because England competes under the name of Great Britain during the games which also includes Scotland and Wales, two countries with separate national women’s soccer teams). The USWNT also has a friendly scheduled for April 6th. The Olympic roster is expected to be announced in May. I’m sure there will be matches between then and the Olympics, which take place August 3-20, as well. The Road to Rio should be fun, new, and exciting so follow the World Champs on their journey to see if they can win the gold once again and become the first women’s national team to win a World Cup and Olympic gold back to back.

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