Nearly half of Team USA’s 20-player roster that will play in the CONCACAF Women’s Championship played in the last regional FIFA Women’s World Cup qualifying tournament back in 2010.
So with this year’s championship beginning Wednesday, the memory of the near-disaster four years ago — when Team USA was pushed to brink of not qualifying for the World Cup — is deeply imbedded in a high-powered locker room that includes the likes of Abby Wambach and Christie Rampone.
“It’s not something they have forgotten,” said Jill Ellis, who took over as the U.S. coach in May. “It’s about going in with confidence and humility. These players understand that nothing is granted or given. For those who were involved it was a wake-up call.”
In the last qualifying tournament, after the U.S. team won all three first-round group games by a combined 18-0, the United States faced host Mexico in the semifinals. The winner would move on to the World Cup. Having never lost in 25 previous games and outscoring the Mexicans, 106-10, Team USA was heavily favored to win.
But a determined Mexican team, inspired by a boisterous home crowd, upset the Americans, 2-1, to qualify for the World Cup. Team USA, conversely, had to beat Costa Rica (3-0) in the third-place game and then outlast Italy in a two-game playoff to qualify for the World Cup, where it reached the final before falling to Japan in extra time.
The 2010 CONCACAF Women’s Gold Cup, as the tournament was called then, was a cautionary tale for Team USA, which has won four of the five Olympic titles since women’s soccer was introduced to the Games in 1996 as well as two World Cup titles since the tournament began in 1991.
“The mentality is, ‘We are not losing,’” said forward Amy Rodriguez, who had four goals in the last CONCACAF championship. “And I think Jill and her staff have done a really great job of instilling that in us.”
The eight-team tournament, the regional qualifying event for countries in North and Central America and the Caribbean, will be a little easier for Team USA this time around.
The 12-day event will be held in the United States — in the stadiums of four MLS teams: Sporting Kansas City, the Chicago Fire, the Philadelphia Union and D.C. United. Originally the tournament was to be held in Mexico but venue issues resulted in having the United States host the games instead.
Missing will be northern rival Canada, which will host of the 2015 World Cup June 6-July 5 and earns an automatic berth to the tournament.
But the biggest change will be the expansion of the World Cup field from 16 to 24 teams. That means that three teams from the CONCACAF championship (instead of two) will qualify directly for next year’s World Cup, with the fourth-place team to play Ecuador in a two-game playoff for another berth.
It eliminates the semifinal “do-or-face-possible-death” elimination scenario from four years ago.
That doesn’t mean there won’t be challenges. Team USA will play in a first-round group that includes Trinidad & Tobago, Guatemala and Haiti, while travelling from Kansas City, Kansas, to Chicago to Washington, D.C., in five days. If it finishes among the top two, it would then head to the Philadelphia suburb of Chester, Pennsylvania, for the semifinals and final.
“Five games in 12 days plus travelling between four cities is going to be difficult for every single team involved,” U.S. defender Meghan Klingenberg said. “We’re going to have to make sure everyone is trained in. I’m sure there is going to be a lot of different lineups, and we’re going to have to win with a lot of different people on the field, which I know that we can do, because it’s such a deep lineup.”
Up until 2010, Team USA had won all six CONCACAF women’s championship tournaments in which it had participated.
It also has all but one Olympic gold medal. But it has not won the Women’s World Cup since its memorable title run with Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain and Co. in 1999.
Still it has to qualify first, and Team USA would rather avoid the detour and extra miles that it traveled the last time.
Brian Trusdell is a writer from New Jersey who has covered four FIFA World Cups and six Olympic Games during his more than 30 years as a sportswriter, mostly with the Associated Press and Bloomberg News. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.