Why the US will win the gold again – and why they may not

becky

By TOM SLATER

One day before opening their Rio run, the United States Olympic Soccer Team will try to build on their impressive portfolio.

The squad, which has never finished with less than a silver medal since women’s soccer was introduced in 1996, will try to do something no team have done — follow up a World Cup championship with an Olympic gold medal. Back-to-back. In consecutive years.

The four times the United States won gold, they failed to win the World Cup the year before. And after the Americans won the 1999 World Cup, they won the silver in the 2000 games.

Holding the two biggest championships in women’s international soccer just 13 months apart presents many challenges that countries just can’t overcome. The order in which they’re held has a good deal to do with it. Every country — whether they admit it or not — wants to win the World Cup. It is just more prestigious. So much of the energy and attention usually goes into preparation for the World Cup, that there is a bit of a hangover that could carry over into the Olympics.

So can this United States’ team finally break the streak and win back-to-back championships?

Here’s three reasons why they won’t and three why they will. You can decide which reasons are best.

Why the United States won’t win: 

  • The roster size is limiting: The Olympics have an 18-player roster, limiting the number of field players to 16. So Jill Ellis better have picked the right players. Eleven players are going to their first Olympics including Mallory Pugh, Crystal Dunn and Lindsey Horan, who are also playing in their first major tournament with the senior team. Others like Meghan Klingenberg, Julie Johnston and Morgan Brian were on the World Cup team last summer. As the tournament plays out, it will be evident if Ellis picked the right combination of players.
  • A grueling schedule: The group play has the Americans — and everyone else — playing three group games in seven days, leaving very little recovery time in between. They’re not in the Group of Death but France and Colombia are not easy games. The pressure is on from the start to win this group, which would put the United States away from Germany in the knockout round. Past the group round, the finalists will play six matches in 16 days – or once every three days. That’s a challenge of stamina with no room for error.
  • The Rapinoe factor: Midfielder Megan Rapinoe has been the unknown variable since experts began trying to figure out the final roster shape. The energetic Rapinoe, known for her laser accurate set pieces and serves, has not kicked a ball competitively but is on the roster. She is not expected to play until the knockout stage. Soccer isn’t like baseball, though, where specialists can come on and do their thing. Waiting for the right opportunity to use Rapinoe, if she’s healthy, might lead to other wasted chances that could cost the Americans.

Why the United States will win:

  • The roster do-over: If Rapinoe can’t go, Ellis has a chance to make a correction. She can bring Heather O’Reilly up from the alternate list. O’Reilly is the quintessential team player, is in tremendous shape and will give the Americans grit, hustle and intensity off the bench — not exactly the same qualities that Rapinoe has, but O’Reilly is an expert at getting down the right side and serving dangerous balls to the middle. With something to prove to Ellis, O’Reilly can take the Americans into another gear if she gets the chance. The East Brunswick native played in her first Olympics in 2004 and scored the game-winner against Germany in the semi-finals. If she gets a chance again, she could be bow out of international play with style. And what a story that would be.
  • The talent is there: Ellis has basically mixed and matched since the Victory Tour and it hasn’t made much of a difference. Whomever she has put in the lineup has played relatively well. The Americans have the best goalkeeper in the world in Hope Solo.  The best goal-scorer in the world in Carli Lloyd. Becky Sauerbrunn has proven to be at the top of the list in the defender category. They have speed on the flanks and technical ability all over the field. What other country can sub off a Crystal Dunn and bring the quality of a Christen Press?
  • Lloyd and Morgan are healthy: Morgan has come back from her relatively quiet and disappointing 2015 World Cup and has been on fire this spring. She has scored 11 goals in 2016 and was connecting well with Lloyd in the early part of the year. Lloyd suffered an injury that was a blessing in disguise. She was going non-stop since before last year’s World Cup. The recovery period gave her time to rest and is now refreshed. She looked fine against Costa Rica in the sendoff match. And don’t forget, the Olympics have become her own personal tournament — especially in the final matches. She scored the game-winner in extra time against Brazil in 2008 and then both goals in the gold medal match with Japan in 2012.

 The United States will kick off Group G play at the 2016 Olympic Games against New Zealand in Belo Horizonte on Aug. 3 (6 p.m. ET; NBCSN, NBC Universo).

The team then remains in Belo Horizonte to face France on Aug. 6 (4 p.m. ET; NBCSN, NBC Universo) before taking off to Manaus for its final Group G game vs. Colombia (6 p.m. ET; NBCSN, NBC Universo).