The USWNT, enjoying their last moments at the Send-Off Series in East Hartford, Conn., hope to be lining up for a gold medal in Japan. (Dennis Schneidler-USA TODAY Sports)
By Michael Lewis
The U.S. women’s national team isn’t just going for the gold at the Tokyo Olympics, the squad is aiming for a women’s soccer first.
The Americans want to become the first squad to win back-to-back championships at the Women’s World Cup and the Summer Games.
Incredible as it sounds, no team has accomplished that before. That includes Germany, Norway, Japan and of course, the USA.
The USWNT won the crown at France 2019 and was preparing for the 2020 Olympics before the COVID-19 pandemic hit last year, postponing the competition for a year. It was a downer for many athletes, but it has given two of the oldest U.S. players – Carli Lloyd (39) and Megan Rapinoe (36) an extra year to collect their competitive breathes.
So, can the Americans make history?
Yes, they can.
Will they do it?
Well, that is another question, entirely.
The Americans have much going for them. They have a world-class player at just about every starting position and a few coming off the bench. Yes, their depth is second to none. They have battled-test veterans who find ways and know how to win.
Which brings us to tradition. The Red, White and Blue has defined success in the sport. The USA has won four world championship (1991, 1999, 2015, 2019) and as many gold medals (1996, 2004, 2008, 2012). Since FIFA began women’s international competitions in 1991, the U.S. has failed to reach the semifinals only once in 14 tournaments (WWC and Olympics), an astounding record. Its only failure was a quarterfinal elimination by Sweden at the 2016 Rio Games (we’ll get to Sweden in a minute).
On the flip side, the team has some challenges, including its average age and the specter of COVID-19.
Without going indepth into this talented squad, the Americans have plenty going for them.
* Goalkeeper – Alyssa Naeher proved her worth in France two years ago, making every save she needed to. Her penalty kick save against England in the semifinals showed she could step up to the occasion.
* Defenders – The back four (going left to right) – Crystal Dunn, Becky Sauerbrunn, Abby Dahlkemper and Kelley O’Hara is second to no one in the world. Dunn, a midfielder for Portland Thorns FC (National Women’s Soccer League), is a devastating attacker on the left flank.
* Midfielders – If everyone is healthy, this platoon can be devastating. Sam Mewis has proven to be a superb two-way player and is lethal with her headers on set pieces. Rose Lavelle, voted the Bronze Ball as the third best player at France 2019, is coming off an ankle injury. Julie Ertz hasn’t played a competition match since suffering an MCL injury in early May. Every great team needs a superior defensive/holding midfielder to win and as good as the USWNT is, the USA needs a healthy Ertz playing at full capacity if it wants to hear the Star-Spangled Banner on Aug. 6. (that’s the gold medal match).
The depth here is solid. Lindsey Horan is versatile. If she doesn’t start, she probably will see plenty of action. Kristie Mewis, Sam’s older sister, Kristie, raised her game to nab a roster spot and is a potential late-match substitute.
* Forwards – Few teams have put together such an impressive arsenal of attacking front-line players. The six forwards have scored a combined 404 goals in 1,022 international appearances. They have been there and done it before at the biggest stage in the world.
With as many as six games scheduled over a 17-day span, it will be up to the coaches, staff and players to be able to recover quickly and then prep for the next challenge. That goes double for the veteran forwards. They average 33.3 years per player with Lynn Williams “the baby” of the group at 28.
Head coach Vlatko Andonovski will have to make sure his older players are not run into the ground, especially the top six, who average 33.3 years per player.
Only three players can start. The likely players for the opening match vs. Sweden is Rapinoe, Alex Morgan (32) and Christen Press (32), who has been the most constant attacking performer. Having the likes of Tobin Heath (32) and Lloyd as potential candidates to start the second game against New Zealand July 24, gives the Americans an unprecedented advantage when it comes to rotating players.
An age-old question
This isn’t a young team. The USA averages 29.72 years a player. It had been at 30.4 before the inclusion of the four alternates brought down the average age of the roster.
Time management for all players, especially the veterans, and proper rest and recuperation is a must.
An historical perspective: The USWNT used team that averaged almost 30 years of age in many of the matches at the 2003 Women’s World Cup.
Despite hosting the event USA – the country was selected while a SARS epidemic ravaged the selected host, China – finished a disappointing third in that competition. The USWNT lost to eventual-champion Germany in the semifinals, 3-0. Age probably wasn’t the only factor affecting the American side. Only days before the tournament’s kickoff, the three-year-old Women’s United Soccer Association went belly-up, which had to affect the players.
The Germans also boasted quite an awesome lineup at the time, boasting the likes of playmaking midfielder Maren Meinert and striker Birgit Prinz.
The International Olympic Committee’s decision to expand rosters from 18 to 22 (adding each squad’s four alternates to the roster) is a major boost for the U.S., which left plenty of excellent candidates home. That will give head coach Vlakto Andonovski many more options with which to play. For example, the talented Catarina Macario, 21, who was one of the alternates, can come off the bench and make a difference late in a match. Macario, incidentally is the youngest player on the team.
The COVID factor
It is so unpredictable.
The team has been in a bubble in southern Japan, training in seclusion. When it comes time for games, there is a scary factor if a player contracts COVID-19, even if she is vaccinated. What does that mean for the rest of the team?
What if an opposing team has an outbreak? How does that affect the competition? Will the games go on if there is a massive outbreak? So many questions, but we’re going to have to wait for the answers.
Due to a severe COVID-19 outbreak in Japan, spectators will not be allowed at matches. That certainly will put a damper on the atmosphere and excitement at stadiums and every Olympic event, for that matter.
Players enjoy playing in front of crowds, celebrating goals and key moments. It has to affect players. Saying that, the USWNT played in several games during the depths of the pandemic in front of little or no crowds. These women are professionals and fans or not, they will go out and give it their all, whether they played in a bubble, on the moon or in a packed stadium.
An unrelated opinion: the decision to use canned noise is not a good one. If no spectators are allowed at games and events, there should not be anything artificial about it.
The group stage
It might be called the Tokyo Olympics, but much of a soccer tournament is played at satellite venues and this competition follows suit. Saying that, the USWNT will begin their gold-medal quest against Sweden in Tokyo on Wednesday, July 21. Then the Americans will play their remaining two Group G matches against New Zealand in Saitama July 24 and then Australia in Kashima July 27.
The Swedes have been a major thorn in the USA’s side over the past six years, even though the latter boasts a 3-0-3 record in the last six meetings. Statistics, however, don’t always tell the entire story.
At the 2015 Women’s World Cup, the rivals played to a scoreless draw in the group stage. The northern European side eliminated the Americans from the 2016 Rio Olympics, winning by penalty kicks, 4-3, after playing to a 1-1 draw. (it went down in the record books as a tie for both teams, according to FIFA rules). Pia Sundhage, directed the USWNT to the 2018 and 2012 gold medals, was the Swedish coach of both those teams. And Sweden played the USWNT to a 1-1 deadlock in an international friendly in Solna, Sweden April 10 of this year, the lone blemish on Andonovski’s record.
Some observers, media and fans have bemoaned the fact the USA will meet Sweden again in an important competition. Playing your rivals in group stage means you won’t have to meet them again, assuming both teams survive, until the medal round. So, it is good to get the Swedes’ confrontation out of the way and worry about things later on.
New Zealand is the champion of a weak confederation, Oceania, but the team should not be counted out. Tom Sermanni, who directed the New York Power (Women’s United Soccer Association) in 2003, Orlando Prince from 2016-18, and the USWNT from 2013-14, has coached the Football Ferns since 2018.
Australia always has been a difficult foe for any team, and what makes the Matildas so much more lethal is former Sky Blue FC (now NJ/NY Gotham FC) standout Sam Kerr, who has a history of making goals out of ordinary passes or setting up teammates with some wondrous feeds. She can change the course of a game in a mini-second. Although the Aussies were eliminated in the Round of 16 in the 2019 Women’s World Cup, Kerr scored five goals (ebhind only Morgan and Rapinoe and England’s Ellen White, who finished with six goals apiece). That’s how good she is.
The knockout round
The top two teams from each of the three four-team groups will reach the quarterfinals, including the top two third-place squads.
This is where it gets really dicey because the competition level will really step up.
There are plenty of talented sides hungry for Olympic glory. England has been on the rise for the past 15 years.
That includes Brazil. The seemingly ageless midfielder Marta, 35, who as team captain will lead this team. Two other players should be familiar women’s soccer fans – Formiga, who at 43 will compete in her seventh Olympics, and Debinha, who performs for the North Carolina Courage. One word of caution if the USA meets the Brazilians in the knockout round. They are coached by Sundhage, who did some damage to the Americans when she was with Sweden.
If you were wondering why a pair of talented Euro sides, France and Spain, are not competed. Well, they were eliminated by the USA in the quarterfinals and Round of 16 in France two years ago. They lost out on traveling to Japan because only the top three UEFA squads could qualify; usually teams that reach the WWC semifinals.
Some last words for early birds or night owls
Depending on where you live, you might have to be early risers or night owls to watch the USWNT in the opening round. The July 21 opener is set for 4:30 a.m. ET. The July 24 middle match will kick off at 7:30 a.m. ET (which isn’t so bad, since it is the weekend) and the final group game July 27 will commence at 4 a.m. ET.