The Gals

Rio 2016: Medal Round

I was looking forward to watching the USWNT take on Brazil in the semi-finals of the Olympic games today at 12 p.m. ET, but sometimes life doesn’t go as planned. On Saturday, the team lost to Sweden on penalties. I was working at a music festival and was unable to watch. I tried my best to follow along on twitter when I wasn’t busy. It was still upsetting regardless of the fact that I wasn’t totally enamored with the game on a TV in front of me.

Saturday’s loss was the earliest Olympic exit for the USWNT since they began competing in the games in 1996. The U.S. won gold at the previous 3 Olympic tournaments. The game was scoreless through the first half. Mid-way through the second frame in the 61st minute Sweden’s Stina Blackstenius put her team up 1-0. The U.S. tied it up 15 minutes later on a goal from Alex Morgan. Neither team was able to score through 90 minutes plus stoppage time. In the 30 minutes of added extra time again neither team was able to find the back of the net so the match went to penalties.

Alex Morgan took the first shot for the U.S. It was saved by Sweden goalkeeper Hedvig Lindahl. Lotta Schelin (SWE), Lindsey Horan (USA), Kosovare Asllani (SWE), and Carli Lloyd (USA) all scored on their PK’s. Linda Sembrant stepped up next for Sweden but was denied by Solo, igniting a surge for the U.S. At that point the score was 2-2 after 3 rounds. Then Morgan Brian put the U.S. up 3-2, but Sweden countered quickly with a goal by Caroline Seger. Christen Press was the final kicker for the USWNT (unless of course the score still remained tied) but her shot sailed over the cross bar leaving it to Lisa Dahlkvist to seal the deal for Sweden, which she did. The U.S. fell 4-3 ending their chances to medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

No matter what the situation it’s always a surprise when the USWNT loses, especially at this point in the competition. They’ve set the standard for so long in the women’s soccer world that it’s expected for them to compete in every final in every major tournament. This time that wasn’t the case. For the first time ever the U.S. failed to medal in a major tournament, but a part of me believes this was coming. Since winning the World Cup last summer the USWNT went through some major changes. The lineup changed drastically with retirements, pregnancies, and injuries, but also with healthy players. Heather O’Reilly, a 14 year USWNT veteran wasn’t part of the active roster. Her status on the USWNT seemed to drop off last year playing in only a handful of matches including once in the World Cup for no visible purpose. She was named as an alternate on the Olympic squad. Ali Krieger, the States’ most consistent and reliable right outside back, began riding the bench some time during Olympic qualifiers for no explicit reason as well. She was a major part of the back line that almost broke the record for scoreless minutes in last year’s World Cup.

When it came to retirements, veterans Abby Wambach, Shannon Boxx, Lauren Holiday, and Lori Chalupny hung up their boots. Forwards Sydney Leroux and Amy Rodriguez were left off the roster because both were pregnant. Megan Rapinoe tore her ACL back in December and worked her way back into the lineup and Olympic roster but still wasn’t 100 percent ready to go. Injuries to Morgan Brian and Tobin Heath right before the Olympics and Julie Johnston and Mallory Pugh during the first match of the games happened too. It seems that the USWNT didn’t have the right lineup and game plan formula for winning which puts Coach Jill Ellis to blame and rightfully so.

At one point in the match on Saturday she had midfielder, Tobin Heath at right back, a move that made most shake their heads. Her philosophy of having a more offensive team backfired. The U.S. barely outscored opponents during the tournament, never scoring more than 2 goals in any match. Relying heavily on rookies and injured players to perform against some of the best teams in the world was another blunder. Good rookies are important to have on any roster but there needs to be a core group of healthy veterans involved as well. In my opinion, Ellis wasted a roster spot on Megan Rapinoe. She wasn’t ready. She may have been healthy enough to play, but she wasn’t in her element at all. Without playing since December, it’s tough to come back strong and perform at your best in a major tournament. It seems to me that their were more politics at play than anything in this tournament, which caused for the early exit.

Now it’ll be another 2 years until the USWNT begins preparing for the 2019 Women’s World Cup. It’ll be time to focus on the NWSL and growing the women’s game in that regard. It was around this time 4 years ago that my love of women’s soccer grew and inspired me. It inspired me in so many ways. I don’t think I’d be where I am today without the game and incredible players/humans that are a part of the U.S. women’s soccer team. Missing the game Saturday was slightly disappointing, but I missed it for great reason as I continue to follow my own dreams. I wouldn’t be doing that without “the Gals” and for that I’m grateful. Win or lose I’ll always be proud of the USWNT players and the way they compete. They’re incredible both on the field and off, and I’m glad to support them. I believe that we will win, but another day and time from now.

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Rio 2016: Group Stage

The 2016 Olympic Summer Games in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil kicked off on Friday night. Before the opening ceremonies, the United States Women’s National Team began their tournament Wednesday in Belo Horizonte, Brazil against New Zealand. “The Gals” then squared off against number three ranked France Saturday afternoon again in Belo Horizonte and Colombia last evening in Manaus. Through three games the USA women’s soccer team had a record of 2-0-1 earning them 7 points and the top spot in their group, Group G. The first place seed sets them up for a quarterfinals match-up with former Coach Pia Sundhage and Sweden on Friday.

In the first match against New Zealand the U.S. came away with a 2-0 win. The goals came from the feet of Carli Lloyd in the 9th minute and Alex Morgan in the 46th minute. The U.S. wasn’t tested much against New Zealand, but that changed quickly when the team played France in their second Olympic Group Stage match.

The U.S. squeaked away from France with a 1-0 win. The game could have gone either way, but France failed to capitalize on multiple scoring opportunities. It also could have ended in a tie, if not for 2015 FIFA Women’s World Player of the Year Carli Lloyd. Lloyd scored off a rebound of a Tobin Heath shot that was saved and hit off the post. France exposed the USWNT back line several times during the match, but U.S. Goalkeeper, Hope Solo, stepped up when needed.

In their third and final group stage match against Colombia last evening, the U.S. succeeded in winning the group but not in the way they would have liked. The game finished in a 2-2 tie with the game tying goal coming from Colombia in the 90th minute. The U.S. fell behind early in the match in the 26th minute when Colombia’s Catalina Usme sent in a free kick that slipped through the five hole of Hope Solo. The U.S. equalized in the 41st minute when Crystal Dunn cleaned up the rebound of a Carli Lloyd shot that was saved and hit off the crossbar. Then shortly into the second half Mallory Pugh beat out several Colombia defenders and kicked the ball through the Colombia defense to the back netting. Her goal came in the 60th minute and put the U.S. up 2-1. Then right before the game went to stoppage time, Catalina Usme again sent in a beautiful free kick from the right side that beat Hope Solo far post. The USWNT failed to hold on for the win and Usme’s brace gave Colombia their first tie against the U.S. after losing their previous 5 meetings. The goals for Dunn and Pugh marked their first ever major tournament goals for the senior national team since both are making their Olympic debuts this summer.

In my opinion, the USWNT is not playing their best soccer. They’re not taking advantage of their scoring chances and their defense doesn’t seem as strong as it was last summer in Canada at the World Cup. Fortunately being as good as they are, they were able to pull out of the group stage with a number one seed. The medal round will be a whole different animal though. If they make it past Sweden on Friday and Brazil beats Australia, the stage will be set for a semi-final between the top ranked team in the world and the host nation. The culture behind the USWNT is a winning mentality. The ladies in the red, white, and blue are going to give it their all to try to win gold for their country. They just need to start peaking to make it a little easier on themselves.

Of note from the group stage, Julie Johnston’s been out with a slight groin injury. Whitney Engen filled in at center back the past two matches. Pugh also took a knock in the first match that kept her out of the France contest. Morgan Brian has seen limited action due to a prior injury. She only played some of the first three matches. Lastly and finally, Megan Rapinoe made her return from being out due to an ACL tear that happened in December. As you can tell, the U.S. has some injury concerns to be aware of going forward too. Hopefully they’ll be able to manage, improve, and secure their third straight Olympic gold.

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.