The U.S. women’s soccer team wrapped up another victorious Concacaf Women’s Olympic Qualifying tournament on Sunday, two days after securing a spot in the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.
Now comes the hard part.
While the U.S. has traditionally had little trouble in Concacaf play — the Americans are 23-0-1 all-time in Olympic qualifying play — the team now must turn around and face stiffer opposition in the coming months before heading to Tokyo, where the U.S. aims to become the first team to go from winning the FIFA Women’s World Cup one year to claiming the Olympic gold medal the next.
Here are some storylines to watch in the coming months.
Andonovski Is Fully In Control Now
Taking over as coach of the U.S. women’s national team is like taking the wheel of a Ferrari. Though not all who drive a Ferrari are Michael Schumacher.
Vlatko Andonovski passed his first big test as USWNT coach, with the team’s drama-free tour through the Olympic qualifying tournament.
The real tests are yet to come.
Andonovski took over for Jill Ellis, the first coach to lead a team to two Women’s World Cup victories. During her five-year tenure, Ellis went from the high of winning the 2015 World Cup to the low of the U.S. being eliminated in the quarterfinals of the Olympic Games Rio 2016 — the worst result by the U.S. women in a major tournament. Ellis responded by revamping the U.S. tactics and switching to a 4-3-3 formation, a move that led to a dominant stretch of play culminating in the 2019 World Cup win.
With Olympic rosters limited to 18, as opposed to 23 in the World Cup, Andonovski is likely to bring more or less the same familiar faces to Tokyo, but there’s a reason why no Women’s World Cup champion has won the subsequent year’s Olympic gold medal. Several players from 2019 are now into their 30s, and many are coming off a hectic year in which they had no shortage of off-field opportunities as world champs.
In putting the pieces back together to make another run, the coach must determine how much to lean on the established veterans versus mixing in younger players. Does the U.S. stick with its 4-3-3 that highlights the team’s potent forward line, or adjust its tactics somehow? Will Crystal Dunn, a dangerous offensive player in the NWSL, continue to line up at left back for the national team?
These are just some of the questions Andonovski will have to answer in the coming months.
Tougher Opponents Are Ahead
The U.S. traditionally has had little trouble against competition in Concacaf, the confederation including North America, Central America and the Caribbean. Much greater tests are coming up quick.
In March, the U.S. hosts No. 6 England, No. 13 Spain and No. 10 Japan for the SheBelieves Cup, a round-robin tournament with games held in Orlando; Harrison, New Jersey; and Frisco, Texas. Sports Illustrated reported that plans are in the works to also host No. 9 Brazil in April and No. 2 Germany in June, with four more games to be determined before the Olympic tournament begins on July 22.
The games against Germany and Spain could have higher stakes for the visitors, both among the world’s best teams but neither having made the cut for Tokyo. With only 12 teams in the Olympic women’s soccer tournament, just three qualified from the ultra-competitive European confederation.
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Cuts Are Coming
One way or another, the U.S. roster will be trimmed in the coming weeks. The World Cup had 23 players, Olympic qualifying had 20 and now the U.S. will need to get down to 18 for Tokyo. For a team that boasts high-end depth across every position, that’ll make for some difficult decisions.
Turnover between the World Cup and Olympic Games is typically pretty low, considering the short amount of time between tournaments. Only two players were added to the Olympic qualifying roster after not being part of the World Cup: midfielder Andi Sullivan and forward Lynn Williams. However, none of the five World Cup veterans left off the Olympic qualifying roster have retired.
For a team so deep that all 20 field players saw action during last year’s World Cup, finalizing this year’s final 18 is no easy task. When all else is equal, look for the team to emphasize players who can line up at multiple positions, such as Lindsey Horan, who can play both midfield and forward. She certainly made her case in qualifying with a team-leading six goals.
Don’t Forget About Alex Morgan
One of the five World Cup veterans not on the team this month was Alex Morgan. The U.S. striker, who tied for the tournament lead with six goals last summer in France, is pregnant with her first child, a daughter due in April. However, the 30-year-old Morgan says she plans to return to training in May and be ready to make her third Olympic team.
Based on training videos she’s posted to social media throughout her pregnancy, she certainly is looking sharp. In a video posted last week, a seven-months pregnant Morgan is seen taking passes atop penalty area, then turning and blasting shots on goal with both feet.
Carli Lloyd Is Ready To Go To Another Olympics
Carli Lloyd’s legacy as one of the greatest to ever play the game is by this point set. She’s determined to write another chapter, though, and at 37 she’s making her case for Andonovski to include her in the final 18, which would mark her fourth Olympic Games. When the U.S. came out for the all-important semifinal on Friday — in which the winner qualified for Tokyo — the lineup featured 10 of the 11 players who also started last summer’s World Cup final, the exception being Lloyd at center forward in place of Morgan. That’s a spot Lloyd has gotten comfortable in as of late, especially after working mostly as a substitute at the World Cup, and she scored once in Olympic qualifying.
She’s not the only veteran who might be looking at a swan song in Tokyo.
Fellow forward Megan Rapinoe, an icon for the past generation of the USWNT and the reigning FIFA women’s player of the year, will be 35 when the Games start, and she’s been battling injuries since her Golden Ball and Golden Boot performance last summer in France. However, she was back in the lineup for the key games last week, and scored a goal.
Stalwart defender Becky Sauerbrunn will also be 35 in Tokyo. In fact, of the 14 players who saw the field in last year’s World Cup final, nine are now 31 or older.
Generational Change Is In Progress
While Andonovski leaned on his veterans for the biggest game so far in 2020, the next generations are beginning to step into the spotlight. Nowhere is that transition happening more right now than in the midfield, where Rose Lavelle, 24; Horan, 25; Julie Ertz, 27; and Samantha Mewis, 27, are all in the primes of their careers. Defenders Abby Dahlkemper, 26; Dunn, 27; and Emily Sonnett, 26, appear to have staying power, as well.
While not exactly an up-and-comer anymore, Christen Press, 31, continued to make her case to break into the starting forward group. The 2016 Olympian scored five goals in Olympic qualifying and won the tournament’s Golden Ball as the best player. The 26-year-old Williams also showed well, scoring three goals.
Chrös McDougall has covered the Olympic and Paralympic movements for TeamUSA.org since 2009 on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc. He is based in Minneapolis-St. Paul.