The U.S. women's national team won the trophy it really wanted last summer in Canada. This summer, the world champs will compete for a place in history.
Since women’s soccer became an Olympic sport in 1996, no country has claimed the Women’s World Cup and Olympic gold medal in back-to-back years. The world champion Americans settled for silver in 2000, then rebounded from World Cup disappointment to claim gold in 2004, 2008 and 2012.
Now a year removed from its triumph in Vancouver, the U.S. remains on a roll and is the prohibitive favorite to stand atop the podium in Rio de Janeiro. At only half the size (12 teams) of the Women’s World Cup and overshadowed by sports for which the Games are the biggest thing going, the Olympic soccer tournament has an anticlimactic feel. But it can provide consolation for countries that left Canada disappointed and for this U.S. team, it offers the chance to stake its claim as the best in the program’s illustrious history.
U.S. coach Jill Ellis must balance the chase for gold with her plans for the 2019 World Cup cycle. Icons Abby Wambach and Shannon Boxx retired, Christie Rampone appears headed that way (at least internationally) and Heather O’Reilly failed to make the reduced 18-player roster (she is an injury alternate).
In their places, up-and-coming stars like Crystal Dunn, Lindsey Horan and 18-year-old Mallory Pugh will get their first taste of the major tournament spotlight.
“If we are about winning world championships, we can't just have all our focus be on the Olympics. It has to be on looking at new players—looking at players to build for beyond,” Ellis said recently. “I think overall the team is excited to try to pursue something that has never been done. We have so many new faces. It’s a brand new feeling for them. That brings something special to the group.”
Those new faces join team staples like Carli Lloyd, Alex Morgan, Hope Solo, Becky Sauerbrunn and a handful of others.
Standing in the Americans’ way will be several teams that could pull off an upset. Brazil, an Olympic silver medalist in ’04 and ’08, will lean on supportive crowds and the offensive creativity of Marta and Christiane. The hosts never really have lived up to their potential—women’s soccer is far from a priority in Brazil—but they did beat the U.S. in Brasilia in a December 2014 friendly and earned a 1-1 draw last year in Seattle.
Australia, which upset Brazil in the round-of-16 last summer, is considered a team on the rise. Meanwhile, France, which is anchored by players from the world’s best women’s club team, Olympique Lyon, is past due. Talented and dynamic, Les Bleues will be the Americans’ toughest group-stage foe (Aug. 6 in Belo Horizonte). France finished a disappointing fourth at the 2012 Olympics then fell to Germany on penalty kicks in last summer’s World Cup quarterfinals.
Germany, the sport’s second-ranked team and a two-time world champion, has had rough luck against the U.S. over the past decade but remains formidable.
Two notable Olympic absences are England and Japan. England was a surprising third-place finisher at last year’s World Cup, which should have qualified them for Rio. But there is no English Olympic team—England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland compete together as Great Britain—so the Three Lionesses were ineligible. And Japan, the 2011 World Cup winner and ’15 runner-up, was a stunning failure to qualify.
Players to Watch
Carli Lloyd, USA: She rocketed to fame with a hat trick in last year’s Women’s World Cup final, but the versatile New Jersey native had been anchoring the U.S. midfield for years. At 34, Lloyd now has 224 senior international appearances and a FIFA World Player of the Year award to her credit. She also will command the sort of attention—from observers and the opposition—that fell to teammates in the past. This is now Lloyd’s team. She will have to respond with start-to-finish consistency and composure if the U.S. is to triumph in what could be her final major tournament.
Dzsenifer Marozsán, Germany: Born in Budapest, the 24-year-old Marozsán already has been a pro for nine years and she’s now the key cog in Germany’s attack. An ankle injury limited her at last year’s World Cup, ensuring her motivation will be high in Brazil. Germany’s World Cup success hasn’t translated to the Olympics, where it has won just three bronze medals. Comfortable as a playmaker or a finisher, Marozsán has 29 goals in 60 games for Germany.
Marta, Brazil: Arguably the most technically skillful athlete in women’s soccer history, Marta is a five-time world player of the year and at 30 years of age, she’ll be eager to lead Brazil to a gold medal on home soil. Although As Canarinhas haven’t won a major global tournament, they’ve played in three finals (two Olympics, one World Cup) and trounced the U.S. in the ’07 Women’s World Cup semifinal behind Marta’s two goals. She also scored all three in Brazil’s 3-0 win in 2014. On a given day, she’s capable of the spectacular.
Louisa Nécib, France: Each of France’s Olympique Lyon stars bears watching, and it remains vexing that Les Bleues have failed to medal at a World Cup, Olympics or European Championship. Camille Abily, Élodie Thomis, Marie-Laure Delie and Eugénie Le Sommer all are world class (as is new Portland Thorns signing Amandine Henry), but Nécib may be the most unique. The 29-year-old has outstanding touch and the sort of poise and vision that produces jaw-dropping passes. She can unlock a defense from just about anywhere and will be key to France’s quest for overdue honors.
Christine Sinclair, Canada: The under-appreciated British Columbian is the second-leading goal scorer in the history of women’s international soccer with 162 (she trails Wambach by 22) and at 33, she’s on the downslope of her international career, although she said recently that she has no plans to retire. Sinclair was the leading scorer at the 2012 Olympics and proved she could get it done against the U.S. with a hat trick in their epic overtime semifinal. Once again, Canada’s hopes will rest on the veteran striker’s ability to dominate the opposition penalty area.
Group E: Brazil, China, Sweden, South Africa
Group F: Canada, Australia, Germany, Zimbabwe
Group G: USA, France, Colombia, New Zealand
Group match days: Aug. 3, 6, 9
Quarterfinals: Aug. 12
Semifinals: Aug. 16
Bronze medal: Aug. 19 at Arena Corinthians, São Paulo
Gold medal: Aug. 19 at Estádio do Maracanã, Rio de Janeiro