KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The U.S. women’s national team takes its first official steps toward World Cup 2015 on Wednesday when the eight-team CONCACAF qualifying tournament begins here at the soccer-specific Sporting Park. And while the U.S. players remember full well that a loss against Mexico in the semifinals four years ago forced them into a qualifying playoff against Italy, there honestly shouldn’t be any problem for the Americans to qualify this time around.
For starters, the expansion of the Women’s World Cup to 24 teams (from 16) next year means four, and perhaps five, CONCACAF teams will secure berths at Canada 2015. What’s more, Canada (the U.S.' biggest regional rival and threat) isn’t even in this qualifying tournament since it is guaranteed a World Cup spot as the host.
As a result, the big question ahead of Wednesday’s opener against Trinidad & Tobago (Fox Sports 2, 8:30 p.m. ET) is this: Three years after the U.S. won Olympic qualifying games by scores of 14-0 (vs. the Dominican Republic) and 13-0 (vs. Guatemala), will the U.S. go at 100 percent full throttle even if it’s destroying teams over the next two weeks?
After all, then-U.S. coach Pia Sundhage drew some criticism three years ago when she was still fist-pumping on the sidelines after her team had scored goals in Olympic qualifying blowouts. But that didn’t keep her team from outscoring opponents by a total of 60-2 in the 10 games of World Cup 2011 and 2012 Olympic qualifying. (The only two goals conceded came in that famous loss to Mexico in Cancún.)
That won't stop current coach Jill Ellis from adopting the same mentality against T&T, Guatemala and Haiti in the group stage.
“We do (go full-throttle no matter what),” Ellis said Tuesday. “For us, certainly the goal differential is part of the equation. You can’t take anything for granted. The other part of it is the players who are coming in off the bench, they’re trying to impress. So you can’t hold a player back from wanting to play their maximum at this level.”
Said U.S. defender Becky Sauerbrunn, “You have to play at your full ability. That shows a sign of respect for the team you’re playing against, but also for the game in general. We do pride ourselves on being a team that can score goals a lot of different ways with a lot of different players. But you also have to remember in this tournament: Should something happen where we lose a game and it’s based on points or goal difference, we don’t want there to be any doubt that we’ll advance on goal difference.”
The U.S. didn’t give up a single goal in five games at the Olympic qualifying tournament three years ago, and both Sauerbrunn and forward Amy Rodriguez said pitching five straight shutouts is another objective this time around.
As for U.S. forward Abby Wambach, she threw out this thought on Tuesday: “We have, no joke, two starting teams on our roster, and both teams would probably vie for winning a world championship.”
She’s probably right, considering the remarkable depth in the U.S. women’s program. But it’s also true that the U.S. hasn’t won a World Cup since their 1999 mainstream breakthrough.
The road to a reprise of that moment 16 years later begins on Wednesday.
GALLERY: Players to Watch at CONCACAF WWCQs
CONCACAF Women’s World Cup Qualifying Players to Watch
F Abby Wambach, USA
A hard-nosed center forward, Wambach has recently embraced playing a role deeper in midfield for the United States, but don’t expect to see the 2012 FIFA World Player of the Year stray too far away from her favorite spot on the field: in front of goal.
F Sydney Leroux, USA
Leroux enjoyed a stellar breakout onto the international scene with 14 goals in 2012, including a five-goal game in her hometown of Vancouver, B.C., against group-stage opponent Guatemala. She also scored four goals in one game in 2013 against Mexico, the U.S.’s biggest threat in these qualifiers.
F Alex Morgan, USA
Despite an injury-addled 2014 season, Morgan remains the face of the American team and one of its biggest threats in attack. It took her over a year to start scoring again for the U.S. after an ankle injury that took a long time to heal, but she scored three goals against Mexico in the team’s most recent tune-up matches before qualifiers.
M Carli Lloyd, USA
She doesn’t have the name-brand recognition of the other U.S. stars on this list, but Lloyd is still one of the team’s most consistent players and an important cog in midfield. She’s the only player, male or female, to score the gold medal-winning goal in two separate Olympics, as she did in 2008 and 2012, when she scored both in a 2-1 win over Japan.
GK Hope Solo, USA
Despite her recent legal troubles and the attention that has come with it — she’s currently awaiting trial for domestic violence — Solo continues to play well for her country. She set the U.S. record for career shutouts with her 72nd in a friendly against Mexico in September.
D Alina Garciamendez, Mexico
After starting for Mexico as a Stanford player at the 2011 World Cup, Garciamendez opted to go abroad for her rookie professional season in 2013 rather than joining the National Women’s Soccer League. The Texas-born defender signed with FFC Frankfurt in the Frauen Bundesliga.
M Teresa Noyola, Mexico
Noyola won the Hermann Trophy as college soccer’s top player in 2011, when she played for Stanford. As a youth player, she represented the U.S. from the under-14 to under-20 level before joining Mexico in 2010, in time to play for El Tri in the 2011 World Cup.
GK Cecilia Santiago, Mexico
Santiago made the World Cup roster for Mexico at age 16 in 2011, and she’s the youngest goalkeeper of either gender to play in a World Cup. Being the youngest player has become familiar territory for her, as she had just turned 14 at the 2008 Under-20 World Cup, and she played an important role in Mexico’s advancement to the quarterfinals in the 2010 edition of the same tournament.
F Daphne Herrera, Costa Rica
Two months after playing for Costa Rica in the Under-20 World Cup, 18-year-old Herrera (right) will be with the senior team as it attempts to qualify for its first World Cup. Costa Rica only scored two goals at the tournament, and Herrera scored the first, in a 5-1 loss to France in the opening group game.
MF Shirley Cruz, Costa Rica
Cruz has spent her entire professional career in France’s Ligue 1 Féminine, first at Lyon from 2006 to 2012 before moving to Paris Saint-Germain. She has won two UEFA Champions League titles, two French Cups and six Ligue 1 titles, as well as scoring 18 goals in 29 caps for the Ticos.
D Alicia Wilson, Jamaica
Jamaica’s captain is an assistant coach at University of West Florida, where she rejoined the coaching staff last year after playing professionally in Iceland and Costa Rica. The 35-year-old quit playing for the national team after its failed World Cup bid in 2006, but she returned to play in the Caribbean Cup in June and will lead her country out this month again.
F Shakira Duncan, Jamaica
Another West Florida connection on the Jamaican squad and the team’s go-to goalscorer, Duncan played for the Argos after transferring from Darton State College. She was the Ron Lenz National Player of the Year both seasons after scoring a program-record 33 goals and 13 assists in 2009, following up with another 31 goals and 12 assists in 2010.
D Daniela Andrade, Guatemala
Andrade is a senior at University of South Florida, where she plays as an outside back. She’s been an important part of the Bulls team since her sophomore year, but she has been a part of the senior national set-up for even longer, since Guatemala’s last World Cup qualifying campaign, when it lost to the U.S. 9-0 in the group stage.
F Maria Monterroso, Guatemala
Another collegiate player, Monterroso plays college ball for Grand Canyon University in Phoenix. She is the Antelopes’ leading scorer this year with six goals, following up on a 20-goal 2012 freshman season at Lyon College in the NAIA.
F Kennya Cordner, Trinidad & Tobago
Cordner briefly joined the Seattle Reign during the 2013 NWSL season, when Seattle desperately needed a goalscorer, and Cordner had scored four goals in three appearances for the Reign Reserves. In 2014, she played for the Seattle Sounders Women and led the team with eight goals in just seven appearances.
F Ahkeela Mollon, Trinidad & Tobago
Mollon has played most of her professional career in northern Europe, floating between Iceland and Sweden. She will miss Kvarnsveden’s final match of the season due to national-team commitments, but her team can finish no higher than third, which is one spot short of promotion to Sweden’s top league, the Damallsvenskan.