By Craig Bohnert | July 12, 2016, 12:10 p.m. (ET)


With seven returning Olympic champions and 14 members of the 2015 Women’s World Cup championship team at its core, the 2016 U.S. Olympic Women’s Soccer Team is ready to embark on another historic journey as it attempts to defend the gold medal it has owned since the Athens 2004 Olympic Games.

Midfielders Carli Lloyd and Tobin Heath and goalkeeper Hope Solo will play in their third Olympic Games, while defenders Kelley O’Hara and Becky Sauerbrunn, midfielder Megan Rapinoe and forward Alex Morgan have earned a spot on their second Olympic roster.

Rounding out the roster are 11 first-timers: goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher; defenders Whitney Engen, Julie Johnston, Meghan Klingenberg and Ali Krieger; midfielders Morgan Brian, Lindsey Horan and Allie Long; and forwards Crystal Dunn, Christen Press and Mallory Pugh.

At age 18, Pugh becomes the second-youngest U.S. Olympic women’s soccer player ever, less than a month older than Cindy Parlow was when she played in the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games.

The U.S. women enter the Rio tournament on top of the soccer world, having won the 2015 Women’s World Cup and earning a third star for their uniform. Of the 18 players bound for Brazil, 14 were part of the World Cup victory. Six of the players have earned more than 100 caps, led by Lloyd, who has appeared in 223 games for the U.S. Solo currently has 197 caps and should surpass the 200 mark in Brazil.

In addition to their status as reigning World Cup champions, the U.S. women are in the midst of dominant streak that has been unseen in Olympic soccer, men’s or women’s. Since the women’s game was added to the Olympic program at the Atlanta 1996 Games, the U.S. has reached every gold-medal match and won four of the available five gold medals, settling for silver at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games. The closest a men’s team has come to being so dominant in Olympic play was when Great Britain won three of the first four gold medals, taking the tournament title in 1900, 1908 and 1912. Remarkably, the player who scored the game-winning goal in the past two Olympic gold-medal matches, Lloyd, will play in Rio after scoring a hat trick in the World Cup final against Japan.

Download the Team USA app today for breaking news, the latest Olympic roster, videos and more.

Rapinoe’s selection completes an impressive comeback from surgery in December to repair a damaged ACL. She returned to full play last week during a team training camp in suburban Chicago. Rapinoe earned a place in soccer history in the semifinal match against Canada at the London 2012 Olympic Games when she scored a goal directly from a corner kick, what is known as an “Olympic goal.” She is the only player, male or female, to score an Olympic goal during Olympic competition.

All but two of the players have played intercollegiate soccer. Pugh will join the UCLA program upon her return from Rio, while Horan declined a scholarship offer from the fabled North Carolina program and instead embarked on a professional career in France, where she played for Paris Saint-Germain before joining the Portland Thorns of the NWSL earlier this year.

North Carolina has five former players on the team (Dunn, Engen, Heath, Klingenberg and Long, who transferred from Penn State midway through her career), followed by Penn State with three (Krieger, Long and Naeher), and Stanford (O’Hara and Press) and Virginia (Brian and Sauerbrunn) with two each. Three players received the Hermann Trophy, college soccer’s version of the Heisman Trophy: O’Hara in 2009, Press in 2010 and Brian in 2013 and 2014.

At the time of the team’s unveiling, its average age is 27.3 years, but by the end of the Olympic tournament that number will rise to 27.6, thanks to six players’ birthdays occurring during that time frame: Lloyd turns 34 on July 16, Krieger turns 32 on July 28, Solo turns 35 on July 30, Klingenberg turns 28 on Aug. 2, O’Hara turns 28 on Aug. 4 and Long turns 29 on Aug. 13.

The U.S. opens Group G with two games in Belo Horizonte, a Brazilian city that holds a place in American soccer lore. It was there that the U.S. defeated England 1-0 in the 1950 World Cup, a result considered by some to be the greatest upset in sports history. The U.S. women will face New Zealand on Aug. 3, two days before the Opening Ceremony, then return to action Aug. 6 against France. Group play concludes on Aug. 9 with an encounter with Colombia in Manaus, the site of the U.S. men’s 2-2 draw with Portugal at the 2014 World Cup.