The opening ceremony of the 2016 Rio Olympics may not take place until Friday evening, but the quest for one of the United States’ best gold medal hopes will begin on Wednesday in Belo Horizonte. The U.S. women’s soccer team has delivered gold for the past three Olympic Summer Games, and, after winning the World Cup in Canada last year, is favorite to claim a fourth in a row in Brazil.
Indeed, while it is attempting to become the first team ever to win Olympic goal a year on from claiming World Cup glory, there is a very strong argument that Jill Ellis’ squad goes into its opening game against New Zealand even stronger than it was 12 months ago.
After all, the United States’ route to the top prize in Canada was far from smooth. It was a team teetering on transition, with Ellis having only taken over as coach 14 months before the World Cup and Abby Wambach’s career coming to an end but her presence in the squad still hugely felt. Meanwhile, star striker Alex Morgan was only just returning from injury and was short of her best.
It was only at the climax of the World Cup that the U.S. truly found its feet. But the alterations that led to that improvement have now been built upon in the year since, leading to the U.S. being strong favorites to take gold over Germany, France and host Brazil.
It was Morgan Brian’s introduction into central midfield, pushing Carli Lloyd into a more advanced role, from where she famously thrived by scoring a hat-trick in the final, that was key. And those roles have been enshrined since, while a selection of new faces have slipped into the program almost seamlessly.
With Wambach, Lauren Holiday and Shannon Boxx retired and fellow veterans Christie Rampone and Heather O’Reilly not in Brazil, the Olympics will offer the experience of a first major tournament for Lindsey Horan, Crystal Dunn, Mallory Pugh and Allie Long. Horan, who eschewed the normal collegiate development route by opting to move to France and play professionally for Paris Saint-Germain, is the most likely of the quartet to be in the starting lineup on Wednesday.
As the 12-team tournament progresses, Dunn should have a major role to play, too. The last player to be cut from the 2015 World Cup roster, the 24-year-old has been prolific since becoming a regular, scoring 14 goals for the national team in the past year. The breakout star for the team, however, could well be Pugh. Still just 18, the winger has excelled since being brought into the fold at the start of 2016.
Pugh’s prospects of starting are boosted by the fact that Megan Rapinoe will not begin the Olympics in the lineup. Similar to the situation with Morgan at the World Cup, Rapinoe is set to be eased back to match sharpness through the competition having only just returned to fitness in order to make the 18-player roster after tearing her anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee last December.
The U.S. last met New Zealand in April, 2015, when Ellis’ team triumphed 4-0 in St. Louis. A participant in the last three World Cups, New Zealand qualified for its third successive Olympics by getting the better of Papua New Guinea in qualifying. The Football Ferns have only ever once gone beyond the group stage at a major tournament, though. That was t four years ago in London, when their run was ended by the U.S. in the quarterfinals.
Midfielder Betsy Hassett, with 92 caps to her name, is one of the holdovers from that tournament and the 25-year-old has just signed for Dutch club Ajax.
Prediction: The U.S. stumbled through the early rounds of the 2015 World Cup, but it should start much more impressively at the Olympics. And Ellis will be particularly keen to get a strong first result, with tougher games upcoming against France and Colombia. With a strong defense still in place, better balance going forward and phenomenal strength in depth, the U.S. will have far too much for New Zealand.
Predicted score: USA 3-0 New Zealand
Venue: Mineirão, Belo Horizonte
Kickoff Time: 6 p.m. EDT