By Michael Lewis | Jan. 27, 2020, 10:40 a.m. (ET)

Megan Rapione and Rose Lavelle pose with the golden boot and bronze boot at the 2019 Fifa Women's World Cup France Final on July 7, 2019 in Lyon, France.

 

The history of Olympic women’s soccer is a story told with the U.S. women’s national team as the protagonist.

The Americans have dominated the women’s competition since it kicked off in 1996.

They have won four gold medals (1996, 2004, 2008, 2012) and a silver (2000) over six competitions. The only major tournament in which the U.S. has failed to reach the medal round was at the Olympic Games Rio 2016, when the team was eliminated by longtime nemesis Sweden in the quarterfinals.

The quest for a fifth Olympic gold medal officially begins Tuesday when the USWNT begins plays at the Concacaf Women’s Olympic Qualifying Championship. Coming off a second consecutive FIFA Women’s World Cup victory, as well as a coaching change, the Americans are aiming to become the first World Cup champions to win the following year’s Olympic gold medal.

Here are some storylines to follow as the team embarks on that journey.

How It All Works
Eight teams from Concacaf — the region consisting of North America, Central America and the Caribbean — meet this week in Texas, where they’ll be split into groups of four and play a round robin. The top two teams from each group advance to the all-important semifinals, which take place Friday, Feb. 7, at Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson, California. The two semifinal winners earn berths to the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 — and then, for good measure, they’ll also meet for the Concacaf tournament title on Sunday, Feb. 9, in Carson.

The Americans are in Group A, with games against Haiti (Tuesday), Panama (Thursday) and Costa Rica (next Monday) all being played in Houston and kicking off at 8:30 p.m. ET. In the semifinals, they are likely to face either Mexico or Canada, which won the bronze medal at the last two Olympics. Jamaica, which qualified for its first World Cup in 2019, and Saint Kitts and Nevis are the other members of Group B. All Group B matches are in Edinburg, Texas.

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Room For Error Is All But None In Olympic Qualifying
Given the U.S. team’s astounding success, expectations are always high. And while qualification for Tokyo is widely expected, it’s not a given. It was less than a decade ago that the Americans needed to get past Italy in a last-chance home-and-away playoff in order to qualify for the 2011 World Cup. And qualifying for the Olympic Games is a notoriously unforgiving quest with only two Concacaf berths, as opposed to three for the latest World Cup (the fourth-place team having an opportunity to qualify in a playoff against another confederation).

Of course, the U.S. hardly cut it close in 2019 World Cup qualifying. It accomplished the feat with flair and in dominating fashion, finishing with a 5-0-0 record while outscoring its opposition 26-0.

Vlatko Andonovski Sees His First True Test
Vlatko Andonovski, who replaced two-time World Cup-winning coach Jill Ellis in October, has been in a honeymoon phase since then with a couple of friendlies and camps. This is his first true competition as coach. The tournament could answer some questions about Andonovski:

-- How will he react to a pressure situation against, say, Costa Rica, or even Mexico or Canada?
 
-- How will the team react and respond to him?
 
-- Will he make the right decisions when called upon?

Andonovski will be under the microscope, like any other USWNT coach has been. Anything less than securing an Olympic spot, and perhaps winning the tournament, will be considered a failure.

Roster Turnover Creates Intense Battle For Olympic Spots
Teams can bring 23 players to the World Cup, and last year in France the U.S. played all but two of them — the backup goalies. The usual roster turnover is amplified when it comes to the Olympics, though, as teams are limited to just 20 players in Olympic qualifying and 18 at the Olympic Games. As a result, five players who won a World Cup in France aren’t part of Olympic qualifying. Forward Alex Morgan is missing the tournament while pregnant with her first child, but Mal Pugh, Tierna Davidson, Morgan Brian and Allie Long were cut. In their place are midfielder Andi Sullivan and forward Lynn Williams.

That doesn’t mean this is the roster we’ll see in Tokyo, though. Morgan, who has 107 international goals, said she hopes to return in time to play at her third Games. Davidson is recovering from an injury, and Pugh has been invited to train with the team, Andonovski said.

What Can Megan Rapinoe Do For An Encore?
Megan Rapinoe enjoyed a magical 2019, especially at the World Cup. She scored six goals en route to winning the two top individual honors — the Golden Boot and Golden Ball. She was also named FIFA’s world player of the year, among many other accolades.

While the 34-year-old forward played sparingly for her club side, Reign FC (Andonovski's former team) in the National Women's Soccer League last season, the eyes of USWNT supporters will be on her to see whether she can continue to produce at a similar level in 2020.

The Marvelous Ms. Lloyd Is Still Kicking
Carli Lloyd legendary status in the game has long since been secured, yet even at 37 the U.S. striker is playing like she still has something to prove. Lloyd finished with a USWNT-best 16 goals last year — one every 60 minutes — even as she took on a “super sub” role at the World Cup. Andonovski might have to rest her a bit, due to short rest between qualifying matches, but the New Jersey native still can still be a major factor for the U.S. The Olympics could be the last hurrah for her. She’s certainly had her hurrahs at past Olympics. Lloyd is the only player to have scored the winning goals in two Olympic gold-medal matches (2008, 2012).

The Blooming Of A Rose
Midfielder Rose Lavelle turned into a star at the 2019 World Cup, earning Bronze Ball honors as the third best player of the tournament. She will have the opportunity to show that was far from a one-off deal. Lavelle, 24, has loads of talent and is expected to be one of the team's leaders in years to come.

When Will Crystal Dunn Be Done As A Left Back?
Her greatest strength might be as an attacking player, yet Crystal Dunn has been listed as a defender (specifically a left back) for the national team. With an embarrassment of riches at forward, Dunn’s defensive abilities have allowed her to still find her way onto the field, and she’s had great success — starting six games at the 2019 World Cup, including the final. But could we see her on the field at midfielder or on the front line? Andonovski said she’ll get that opportunity this year, though he didn’t specify when.

In 2015, Dunn led the NWSL in goal-scoring and was named MVP after being left off the World Cup roster. She is an attacking midfielder for North Carolina.

Holding Off A Record Breaker?
Everyone knows the U.S. has the game’s all-time greatest goal scorers in Mia Hamm and Abby Wambach. Right? Well, yes, for now at least. Canadian striker Christine Sinclair is on the verge of tying and breaking the all-time international goal-scoring record held by retired U.S. legend Wambach. Sinclair has 183 goals, one shy of Wambach's record. Hamm is third with 158.

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.