Lynn Williams, Jessica McDonald and Mallory Pugh celebrate scoring a goal against Costa Rica on Nov. 10,2019 in Jacksonville, Fla.
When the U.S. Women’s National Team competes in the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 this summer, head coach Vlatko Andonovski has some simple goals.
“Besides winning a gold medal, to have a good time,” he says.
Before Andonovski can have that good time, he must make some difficult decisions, particularly whittling down the roster to 18 players on the best women’s soccer team in the world. He’ll begin that process in earnest on Thursday, when the U.S. meets Canada in the opening match for both teams in the SheBelieves Cup in Orlando, Florida.
Coming off its second consecutive Women’s World Cup championship in 2019, despite enduring a year that had been hampered by the COVID-19 pandemic, the USWNT is considered the favorite to secure an unprecedented fifth Olympic gold medal. While the competition in Japan is expected to be stiff, just trying to earn a spot on the squad is a challenge and a half for some players who are on the bubble.
To the average sports fan, February, March or April might sound a bit early to make such a decision, but it has been a tradition of USWNT teams to name squads for the World Cup and Olympic Games as early as possible. Coaches want to find the proper rhythm in training camps and friendlies and quite possibly, a send-off tour in June or July.
You can’t argue with success. After all, the USA has written Olympic women’s soccer history, winning four gold medals and a silver since the competition was added to the Games in 1996. After underachieving at the Rio Games in 2016, in which the U.S. failed to reach the medal round for the first time in six tournaments, the Americans want to avoid a repeat performance.
For someone such as forward Lynn Williams, who is battling seven talented goal-scorers, every minute in training and in games is vital.
“I think that’s what makes this team so unique and beautiful is that every day, every training, every even moment outside of training you have to be on and you have to be consistent,” she said during a Zoom videoconference with the media on Wednesday. “When it comes down to picking the team, it’s going to be who’s in form and also who is healthy. So I think first and foremost staying healthy, just continuing to grow and being consistent but being here in camp and training and competing with the best in the world is only going to make yourself better, which in turn is going to make the team better.
“It’s definitely stressful sometimes but I’m happy I’m not (the) coach because I think that’s going to be a hard decision (to) select the team.”
Regardless of who makes the team, the SheBelieves Cup is positioned perfectly for the U.S. women, who are seeking their fourth tournament title. The round-robin format features three games in eight days, just like the group stage of the Olympic tournament that kicks off on July 21. Following the opener with Canada, the Americans also face Brazil on Feb. 21 at 3 p.m. ET and Argentina on Feb. 24 at 7 p.m. ET. All games are at Exploria Stadium in Orlando.
“We are going to test how they are going to react in three consecutive games in a short period of time because it resembles the group stage in the Olympics, but with some players we’re going to use it as the evaluating platform, so we can make decisions going forward,” Andonovski said.
Not surprisingly, the U.S. enters the SheBelieves Cup as favorites, thanks to a 35-game unbeaten streak that goes back slightly over two years. The Americans also have another unique streak against Canada, having not lost to their northern neighbors in almost two decades. Their last defeat came in the Algarve Cup, a 3-0 result on March 11, 2001.
Lopsided record aside, Canada head coach Bev Priestman expects an intense game, alluding to the USWNT’s epic 4-3 comeback victory in the 2012 Olympic semifinals that had a few controversial moments.
“You only have to go to 2012, to know what U.S. and Canada means and there’s some people in this squad now who have lived that and feel still hard to come by in that sense,” Priestman said. “So, I think that rivalry is absolutely there.”
The Canadians enter the match without several key players, including captain and midfielder-forward Christine Sinclair, who has scored more international goals (186) than any other player on the planet.
“I think coming into this tournament, it’s not how I originally imagined my first tournament would be in particularly playing No. 1 in the world,” said Priestman, who will be coaching her first match with Canada. “That first game will just be the baptism of fire in in a good way. But I’ve asked the group to be really brave and step up and go towards the opportunity in front of us. And I know that every player is going to put their body on the line. We’re going to be a hard team to beat.”
Andonovski said he too expected an inspired Canada side on Thursday night.
“Canada comes in with so much determination,” he said. “… So, we’re definitely going to expect that intensity and battle as a starting point, but also there’s incredible young players that that will create problems.”
Beating your neighbors is important, but some players are just as concerned with how they as a team and individuals can improve with the Olympic tournament five months away.
“Canada is a great team,” center back Abby Dahlkemper said. “They have amazing players, and we respect them. But I think it’s important to also just focus on us as a team and individuals and looking at the journey. We want to improve in areas ... and continuing in that journey into the summer and through the Olympics. We’re really looking forward to the game.”
Whether Andonovski and his staff will be looking forward to whittling down his roster to 18 fortunate players who will take the trip to Tokyo is another matter. Of course, just about every coach in the world would love to be in his shoes.
The SheBelieves Cup should give the USWNT head coach some clarity.