It may have undergone a significant evolution since winning the 2015 Women's World Cup, but the United States women's soccer team remains as hungry as ever, according to coach Jill Ellis. The U.S. begins its quest to become the first team in history to follow up World Cup victory by claiming Olympic gold a year later when taking on New Zealand in its opening group game in Bel Horizonte on Wednesday.
The lineup that takes to the field in Brazil will feature plenty of changes from the one that thrillingly beat Japan 5-2 in the final in Vancouver last July. Gone are veterans Abby Wambach, Lauren Holiday, Shannon Boxx, Christie Rampone and Heather O'Reilly. In their place has come a new generation, helping Ellis to make the team's style more flexible and sophisticated.
Forward Crystal Dunn, the last player to be cut from the 2015 World Cup roster, has scored 10 goals in 2016. Midfielder Lindsey Horan eschewed the normal collegiate development route for U.S. players by going to play professionally in France with Paris Saint-Germain at the age of 18. Winger Mallory Pugh is still just 18, but has already made a sizable impact on the national team.
Even the positions of long-time U.S. players have been tweaked. Kelley O'Hara, previously mostly deployed as a winger, now looks set to start the tournament as an outside back, giving the team more attacking options against teams, like New Zealand, that are likely to sit back and attempt to frustrate.
Yet, while adding new elements to a team she had just 14 months to work with prior to the 2015 World Cup, Ellis is adamant that the old core elements of strength, athleticism and desire remain. And she believes her 18-player roster has what it takes to succeed where other teams have failed.
“One of the things that I really looked into is why has a repeat never been done?” Ellis said ahead of the team's opening match. “Is it a change of personnel? Is it complacency? Is it timing? To make sure that doesn’t happen I had a lot of individual meetings … and that was one of the questions I posed to players: Are you as hungry? Do you feel as focused?
“The resounding response was ‘yes.’ These players want to make history.”
Ellis confirmed that midfielder Morgan Brian and winger Tobin Heath would be fit to start on Wednesday after injury concerns. But there is unlikely to be any playing time in the opener for Megan Rapinoe. The playmaker won her fitness battle to be selected for the Olympics after tearing her anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee last December. However, she has hinted that even a role off the bench might be beyond her until the knockout rounds.
"Obviously I'm not going to be a 90-minute player in this tournament," she told The Associated Press on Tuesday. "I'll have to work my way back in. I think that getting into the knockout round I'll be able to come off the bench and make an impact that way, being more of a role player."
For the U.S. to make the knockout phase, it will need to finish in the top two in a group that also contains France or Colombia, or as one of the two best third-placed teams in the 12-team Olympic competition.
New Zealand has only ever gone past the opening round once in its five major tournament experiences. That came at the Olympic Games four years ago, when the Football Ferns were ousted in the quarterfinals by the U.S.
Rosie White, who came on as a substitute in that defeat, accepts that her team faces a huge task in its opening match, but hopes to provide a sizable upset.
“We know that we come into this game as the underdogs and we will have nothing to lose against the World No 1,” the 23-year-old forward told New Zealand Football. “We know that anything can happen in football matches. We have seen that time and time again at big events and we know that we have the ability to beat any team on our day. It is not going to be easy and if we can play at our best then we give ourselves a pretty good chance of doing well.”