USWNT enter final stretch in Olympic preparations vs. Japan

hope solo

by TOM SLATER

The United States Women National Team is heading into the final stretch of its preparations for the Rio Summer Olympic Games and they’ll use a pair of games against a familiar foe to do it.

The United States faces Japan in a pair of friendlies on June 2 in Denver and June 5 in Cleveland.

For the Americans and their coach Jill Ellis, it means time is of the essence in deciding not only the final 18 roster spots but to begin the search for the proper chemistry that will take the United States to its fourth Olympic gold medal in Brazil this August.

“We have two games against a great team,” said United States goalkeeper Hope Solo. “I know Japan doesn’t have a lot of their well-known players but we’re all really excited to see the younger, technical side of Japan. We don’t know what they’re going to bring but it will be great, and it will be a little bit different than what we’ve seen in the past.”

The matches are particularly meaningful to Solo. She is sitting on 98 career shutouts. A pair of clean sheets against the Japanese will make her the first United States goalkeeper with 100 career shutouts.

Ellis will pick only 18 players — two goalkeepers and 16 field players — for each match. With 23 players in camp, the selections for each game could tell the story for a number of players including some veterans and newcomers.

One of the Ellis’ tougher decisions — at least on the emotional level – was already made for her when former team captain Christie Rampone announced she was not attending camp after Ellis picked her in mid-May. Rampone, who will turn 41 in June, said she that while she is fully recovered from knee surgery last December, her fitness wasn’t up to international play. She is still playing for Sky Blue FC in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) and has played in all seven club matches.

Two other veterans from last year who are on their final chances are defender Whitney Engen and popular midfielder Heather O’Reilly. Both were initially left off Olympic Qualifying Rosters early in 2016. Both were added for additional games since. Engen is battling newcomer Emily Sonnett for the backup central defender role Engen has seen her time increase slightly in recent matches.

O’Reilly hasn’t gotten the same opportunities on the playing field. She has seen very few minutes in 2016 and has been hurt by the emergence of Crystal Dunn, teen phenom Mallory Pugh and Lindsey Horan.

The United State and Japan are now stranger in international competition. Their history dates back to 1986, but it’s the more recent meetings between the two sides that have bound these two countries together in women’s soccer history.

The two countries have met in the last three world finals, with the United States losing the 2011 Women’s World Cup in penalty kicks after a 2-2 tie over regulation and extra time, then winning the 2012 Olympic goal medal game 2-1, and the historic 2015 Women’s World Cup Final, 5-2. These will be the first meetings with Japan since the Women’s World Cup and the USA has an all-time record of 25-1-6 against the Asian nation, outscoring them 92-22. Japan will miss out on this year’s Olympic Games after failing to qualify out of the difficult Asian Football Confederation.