By Michael Lewis | Feb. 09, 2016, 10:51 a.m. (ET)


No one has to remind U.S. women’s soccer national team coach Jill Ellis how vital it is for the team to qualify for the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games.

Not only have the Americans participated in every tournament, they essentially own the women’s competition with four gold medals (1996, 2004, 2008 2012) and a silver (2000).

“It’s massive in terms of the expectations on ourselves and on our program,” Ellis said in a recent interview. “We’ve got great tradition and great history in the Olympics. These players are humble enough to know that they have to earn everything, that this is a crazy game and that anything can happen.”

The journey to qualification begins Wednesday, and on Feb. 19 the two semifinal winners at the CONCACAF Women’s Olympic Qualifying Championship book tickets to Rio, where Team USA will be looking to win an unprecedented fourth consecutive gold medal and become the first team to secure the FIFA Women’s World Cup and Olympic gold in back-to-back years.

“That’s the big goal,” Ellis said. “But none of that happens without getting it right in qualifying. So 100 percent of our focus is here in the next two weeks.”

Who’s Not There?

Twenty-three players were on the U.S. team that won the 2015 Women’s World Cup in Canada. The player pool was cut to 20 for Olympic qualifying and, should the team qualify, will be limited to 18 in Rio. So, naturally, there are some changes. Four players retired from the World Cup squad and another six won’t be playing this month. Striker Abby Wambach, midfielders Lauren Holiday and Shannon Boxx and defender Lori Chalupny hung up their boots. Forwards Amy Rodriguez and Sydney Leroux are pregnant. Midfielder Megan Rapinoe, the best playmaker, is out with an ACL injury, and veteran Christie Rampone is recuperating from knee surgery. Of the 2015 World Cup veterans who are healthy and active, only Heather O’Reilly, a three-time Olympian and World Cup team member, and Whitney Engen were left off the Olympic qualifying roster.

Who’s New?

Crystal Dunn, one of the last cuts from the World Cup team, raised the level of her game in the National Women’s Soccer League, securing the scoring title and MVP honors. She is a versatile player who can make impact on defense, midfield or forward, but Dunn is much better as an attacking player who perhaps can spark oft-injured striker Alex Morgan to greater heights. Forward Mallory Pugh, 17, the youngest player on the qualifying roster, has great potential. A UCLA recruit, Pugh scored her first international goal in her debut in a 5-0 win over Ireland in January. Forward Stephanie McCaffrey and midfielder Sam Mewis, who each have made five international appearances, also made the team.

What’s At Stake?

CONCACAF — the region including North America, Central America and the Caribbean — has two spots in the 12-team field at the Rio Games. Anything less than qualifying wouldn’t be disappointing for the team, given the Americans’ Olympic domination.

What’s The Format?

The competition is composed of two groups of four teams each. The Frisco, Texas, venue (Group A) boasts the USA, Mexico, Canada and Puerto Rico, while Houston (Group B) has Canada, Guatemala, Trinidad & Tobago and Guyana. The top two teams in each group will reach the semifinals. The first-place team in each group will play the runner-up from the other. The Feb. 19 semifinal winners at BBVA Compass Stadium in Houston qualify for Rio. The Feb. 21 championship game is for confederation bragging rights.

Who Is The Biggest Threat?

Group A is the “Group of Death” with three 2015 World Cup teams. Someone won’t reach the semifinals. The Costa Ricans, who made their World Cup debut, are greatly improved, while Mexico is stocked with many U.S. collegians who have Mexican heritage. Winning the group would mean Team USA would play a lesser foe than Group B favorite Canada in the semifinals, most likely Trinidad & Tobago or Guatemala.

Who To Watch?

Each of the four top countries has a game-changer. Midfielder Carli Lloyd, who scored in the last two Olympic gold-medal games and added a hat trick in the 2015 World Cup final, is Team USA’s money player. Canadian striker Christine Sinclair, who struggled at the World Cup, is behind Wambach as the second leading international goal-scorer (158 to 184). Midfielder Raquel Rodriguez has emerged as Costa Rica’s finest player, becoming the first Tica to score at the World Cup. She then led Penn State to the NCAA Division I women’s championship and was named the Hermann Trophy winner as the best collegiate women’s player last year. Maribel Domínguez has tallied 75 times for Mexico, but she’s 37, ancient for an international striker. Forward Monica Ocampo is the next best scoring option.

What Are The Keys For Team USA?

While it’s easy to focus on goals and the attack, Team USA’s strength is its defense — both in the team and the back line. The unit of center backs Julie Johnston and Becky Sauerbrunn, outside backs Meghan Klingenberg and Ali Krieger, and goalkeeper Hope Solo allowed one goal in six World Cup matches before surrendering two to Japan in the final, a 5-2 triumph. If the U.S. defense is on its game, it should book a trip to Brazil, barring a complete meltdown of its attack.

Who’s Qualified Already?

Host Brazil, Colombia, France, Germany, South Africa, Zimbabwe and New Zealand. Five spots are open, two from CONCACAF, two from Asia and another from UEFA (Europe).

Michael Lewis, who covers soccer for Newsday, has written about the sport for four decades and has written six books about soccer. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.