Melissa Gonzalez celebrates scoring the game-winning goal at the FIH Hockey World League on July 20, 2017 in Johannesburg.
Melissa Gonzalez has been on the U.S. women’s field hockey team since 2010, competed at two Olympic Games and one World Cup, and she is now team captain as the U.S. heads into the Vitality Hockey World Cup in London that begins July 21.
At 29 years old, Gonzalez is by no means ancient. Yet with a team-leading 238 caps on a roster that includes many young players, Gonzalez has been around the pitch more than a few times. She knows good from bad and is confident Team USA can fare well even with a roster that’s much changed from the team that placed fifth at the Olympic Games Rio 2016 and the group that was fourth at the 2014 World Cup — the team’s second-best finish ever.
This year’s 18-player roster under coach Janneke Schopman may have three players with 11 or fewer caps and only six players from that 2014 World Cup, but Gonzalez says it’s a talented, gritty and unified group. It goes into Cup play ranked seventh in the world.
“I field a lot of questions about youth and I think what’s kind of exciting about it is a lot of people stigmatize it,” Gonzalez said. “‘Oh, we’re a young team, how will we fare?’ and maybe we don’t have as much experience, but I think what’s great about it is that yes, we’re young, but the positives are we don’t have expectations.”
Through games against strong teams such as Argentina, the Netherlands, Canada and Chile this year in the lead-up to the World Cup, the Americans have been more process-oriented, melding the new talent with the veterans, and are focused on the now. It’s not about the past or the future.
“We just play the game, play what’s in front of us, play to our strengths and not worry about the expectations,” she said.
Team USA, however, has a tough road in the 16-team World Cup. It begins with the Americans’ own pool. In Group B, the U.S. is joined by world No. 2 England, which, playing as part of Great Britain, was the Olympic champion in 2016. They are joined by No. 10 India and No. 16 Ireland. The U.S. will open against Ireland on July 21.
Aside from Gonzalez, a midfielder, the five veterans from the 2014 World Cup on this roster are midfielder Michelle Vittese (who’s second on the team with 208 caps), goalkeeper Jackie Briggs, defender Stefanie Fee along with strikers Jill Funk and Kathleen Sharkey.
The younger players on the roster, said Gonzalez, have added athleticism, speed and scoring punch. Midfielders Erin Matson, Lauren Moyer and Tara Vittese (Michelle’s sister) are among the talented scorers.
“Honestly, everyone is capable,” Gonzalez said. “That’s what’s cool about our team. They’re young but they are fierce.”
That attitude, she said, shows up in the team’s fitness and its ability to battle. The team played hard — and learned — in every game this year, right to the end, she said. While the U.S. went 0-4 vs. the Netherlands in January and 0-5 vs. Argentina in June, and it was 1-2-1 vs. Canada and 2-0-2 vs. Chile, the win-loss record wasn’t the important takeaway. Just having the chance to play world elites such as the Netherlands and Argentina was valuable for an evolving team.
“Especially with Argentina and Holland, we’re really well-versing and educating ourselves,” she said. “What’s important is we don’t let that discourage us.”
Schopman, too, said the games in Argentina in June “showed us where we should put our focus on, and the team is working hard to making sure we have covered all our bases come the first game.”
Now that the World Cup opener is so close, Gonzalez can’t wait for play to begin. The keys, she said, will be to not look past any opponent, play as a team and fight every single play. She said this U.S. team can thrive by hustling, forcing turnovers and taking advantage of opportunities it creates.
“It’s really exciting to see all the hard work paying off with the chance to measure yourself,” Gonzalez said.
Doug Williams covered three Olympic Games for two Southern California newspapers and was the Olympic editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has written for TeamUSA.org since 2011 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.