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More than 8,000 miles from home, the U.S. women’s field hockey team is in India this week with one goal: Lock down a spot in the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.
It all comes down to two matches Friday and Saturday against India in a new Olympic qualifying format being used this year by the International Hockey Federation (FIH).
Win twice, and the U.S. secures one of 12 spots in the women’s tournament. Win once, and the U.S. can still qualify through a tie-breaking procedure that involves the goal differential over the two matches.
“We’re very excited that the qualifier has finally arrived,” team captain Kathleen Sharkey said via email. “We’ve prepared for every possible scenario and have taken care of all the controllables off of the field, like fitness, nutrition and scouting. We are very ready for the games and we are ready to battle on the field together to achieve our goal of qualifying for the Olympics.”
Both games will be played at Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar, which is located in a coastal area in eastern India. And it will be noisy, a fact not lost on U.S. coach Janneke Schopman.
“We have to execute our game plan and have the flexibility to adapt to what India will throw at us,” she wrote via email to TeamUSA.org. “It will also be very loud in the stadium with 15,000 people, so it’s key for us to attack and defend as a team, connect and do the work all the time.”
“We’re expecting that there will be a full stadium this weekend, which will be an amazing environment to play in,” added Sharkey, a 2016 Olympian who was the U.S. flag bearer for the Opening Ceremony of this summer’s Pan American Games Lima 2019. “I think the stadium will be very loud, which could make it difficult to communicate on the field, but we’ve all had the experience of playing in packed stadiums in other countries before and so I think we are very prepared for it.”
Casey Umstead competes at the Pan American Games Lima 2019 on Aug. 9, 2019 in Lima, Peru.
The U.S. is ranked 13th in the world and is coming off a third-place finish at the Pan Am Games. Its fifth-place finish at the Olympic Games Rio 2016 was the best finish for the U.S. women since winning a bronze medal at the Olympic Games Los Angeles 1984. One year after Rio, the U.S. won a gold medal in the FIH World League Semifinals.
Erin Matson, a 19-year-old midfielder, scored three goals in a 5-1 victory over Chile in the bronze-medal game of the Pan Am Games. Other U.S. standouts include Lauren Moyer, a member of the 2017 World League team, and goalkeeper Kelsey Bing, along with Casey Umstead and Danielle Grega, who were promoted to the national team last year.
Schopman, who was promoted to head coach in 2017, said she is pleased with the team’s preparation entering the Olympic qualifier in India.
“The team has made great steps in the last weeks,” she said. “They have put a lot of effort and work in the preparation and are ready and excited to play.”
The new qualifying procedure will determine the final seven teams for Tokyo. Japan has already qualified as host, while top-ranked the Netherlands, Argentina, New Zealand and South Africa all qualified by winning their continental championships.
The final two-team playoff format could produce a shootout round that decides the Olympic berth on Saturday. A win is worth three points and a tie is worth one point. If the U.S. and India are tied in points after two games, and also tied in goal differential after Saturday’s second game, then a shootout would determine the winner.
China was the first to take advantage of the shootout format, defeating Belgium in a shootout on Oct. 26 to secure an Olympic berth. Australia and Spain have also qualified through the two-team format.
In addition to the U.S. versus India match, three other Olympic qualifiers are set for this weekend: Chile at Great Britain, Italy at Germany and Canada at Ireland.
India is ranked No. 9 in the world but lost to Team USA in both the Olympic Games Rio 2016 and World League Semifinals.
“India is an experienced and good team,” Schopman said. “They are good in playing the counter, are fast to go forward, have a solid defense and have a very good penalty corner with one of the best drag flickers in the world.”
Sharkey, a forward and midfielder, is hoping the U.S. can crank up its offense.
“We need to make sure we’re maximizing every scoring opportunity we get,” Sharkey said. “We need to be aggressive and clinical in the attacking circle. On defense, we need to manage their skillful attackers. They have a lot of speed and skill, so we’ll need to disrupt the play without overcommitting.”
Paul D. Bowker has been writing about Olympic and Paralympic sports since 1996, when he was an assistant bureau chief in Atlanta. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.