HOUSTON -- Given what the U.S. women’s national soccer team has accomplished in the past quarter century, winning the CONCACAF Women’s Olympic Qualifying Championship and earning a berth to the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games is hardly an end-all.
The defending FIFA Women’s World Cup champions aren’t just about winning games at this point; it’s all about securing trophies and medals.
So the gold medals they wore while walking out of BBVA Compass Stadium for besting Canada 2-0 in Sunday’s final served only a reminder of what will be at stake in Rio in August: an unprecedented fifth Olympic gold medal in women’s soccer.
“Off of this last World Cup they won, this is just another goal and dream with this team,” said midfielder Lindsey Horan, who scored the first goal of the game in the 53rd minute. “I’m so happy that I can be a part of this qualifying tournament … and do what I can to help this team and go win in Rio.”
Not surprisingly, the U.S. team already has a game plan in place to stay at top form. Next month the Americans will host the SheBelieves Cup, bringing in three leading national teams in England, France and Germany.
“The best thing we’re doing is bringing in some of the top teams in the world to play,” U.S. coach Jill Ellis said. “We’ve got to continue to grow and evolve in terms of experience. We’ve got new leadership, new players. Those have to continue to come together.”
In addition, more international friendlies are expected as Rio draws closer.
The 18-player U.S. roster for the Rio is hardly set. Ellis said that she wouldn’t give up searching for players in the National Women’s Soccer League, which will begin play in April.
“There are always opportunities,” she said. “The NWSL will be a big part of looking for players in form. I’ve got a scouting plan for those games. I’ve already told our players that the games will count and matter because they have to get fitness on the field. And there’s a new crop of players going into the NWSL. You’re constantly looking for players who you think can add one more special thing to this group.”
Ellis already has a real special group of players — a group that didn’t allow a goal over five games in the CONCACAF tournament.
Hope Solo was named the Golden Glove winner as the top goalkeeper, and Morgan Brian was selected as Golden Ball winner as the top player. They and six teammates were named to the all-tournament team: defenders Kelley O’Hara and Becky Sauerbrunn, midfielders Horan and Tobin Heath, who tallied the second goal in the 61st minute, and forwards Alex Morgan and Carli Lloyd. Midfielder Crystal Dunn, who hardly saw some much playing time in the last two matches, won the Golden Boot as the top goal-scorer (six).
The U.S. team might seem to be in a rebuilding mode, but it’s more like reloading.
Take, for example, the central midfield pairing of 21-year-old Horan and 22-year-old Brian. Brian became a regular at the World Cup. With veteran midfielder Lauren Holiday having retired after the World Cup, Horan has slotted into her role and has become a dominant player already.
“I’ve played with Lindsey since I was 15,” Brian said. “So for us, we’ve had a bond for seven years. I know her like the back of my hand. It’s not just about developing players. It’s also helpful that these bonds form before you get to the full team.”
Brian, who is still years from her prime, has become the team’s quarterback.
“She was exceptional,” Ellis said. “She connects passes, can help us with the build-up, can get forward. She’s just so versatile and comfortable. She changes our game in terms of tempo. I think her and Horan are building a good relationship. Tonight you saw some of her class.”
Yet, believe it or not, there is plenty of room for improvement.
“We’re getting there,” Sauerbrunn said. “I still think we have a few levels left to go. Our potential, we’re not close to reaching it yet.”
She then rattled off the areas that need upgrading: taking care of the ball, tempo, runs off the ball, runs in the penalty area.
“Sophistication I am talking about,” she said. “We are just scratching the surface in a lot of areas where we can really master and become experts at.
“I think that’s what’s great about this team, that we’re constantly evolving and we all feel it and we all see it. There were moments today against Canada. We don’t want it to be every other play. We want it to be every play.”
Now that’s some scary talk from a team that is aiming to win its fourth consecutive Olympic gold medal.
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.