USWNT Continues Its Mastery of Olympic Qualifying

The U.S. women are one win away from securing their ticket to Tokyo after rolling through the group stage of Concacaf's qualifying tournament.
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From a pure numbers perspective, the field at Concacaf's Olympic qualifying tournament remains no match for the U.S. women's national team. The stats are staggering. In 22 matches all-time in the competition, the U.S. women are 21-0-1. They've scored 116 goals (an average of over five per game) and allowed just three. After that one draw, 1-1 vs. Canada in the 2008 title match, they prevailed in penalty kicks.

They've never failed to qualify for the Olympics, and after topping their group following a 6-0 thrashing of an overmatched Costa Rica on Monday night, they head to the decisive semifinal match in Los Angeles as an overwhelming favorite to make it 7-for-7 in reaching the Olympic stage.

Mexico will be waiting in the semifinals on Friday night, with its loss to Canada on Tuesday setting up a matchup vs. the U.S. in a do-or-die clash. Canada, which saw Christine Sinclair extend her all-time international goal record to 186 in Tuesday's 2-0 win, will face Costa Rica for Concacaf's other ticket to Tokyo.

Beyond the numbers, it hasn't been a totally flawless showing, but perhaps that'd have been an unfair expectation from a team playing its first tournament under a new coach, not having played any matches—let alone competitive ones—for a couple of months.

Here are some of the key elements from their group matches in Houston, and what they might mean for the them going forward as they head west to California:

Shaking off the rust

The U.S. women were rather blunt prior to the start of the competition, saying some cliché-but-true things about how there'd likely be rust in their first competitive match since the Women's World Cup and that they hoped to grow into each game in the tournament. It's all played out exactly like that. The win over Haiti to open group play was less than stellar, a 4-0 victory glammed up by some late goals. Haiti had a would-be goal disallowed for reasons that remain unclear, and at the time, it would've made things 1-1.

Since then, it's been a relative bloodbath, with the U.S. blitzing Panama 8-0 with four goals in each half and then handling Costa Rica with ease, running out to a two-goal lead within 10 minutes. This is a business trip for the U.S. women, who are well aware that the only unconquered frontier in program history is following up a Women's World Cup win with Olympic gold. So far, so good.

Is it Press's time to shine?

If there's been one MVP for the U.S.—or one player to significantly boost her stock—so far, it's been Christen Press, who is a player on a mission. She's largely been reduced to a reserve role with the national team in major competitions, playing behind Megan Rapinoe and Tobin Heath on the wings. She's shown she has what it takes when she starts, though, as evidenced by her goal vs. England in the World Cup semifinals while deputizing in an injured Rapinoe's place.

In this tournament, she's been next-level, showcasing her pace and finishing ability–with both feet–to the tune of four goals. She's on a five-match scoring streak, finding the back of the net in each of the matches coached by Vlatko Andonovski so far. At 31, it seems like she's ready to seize a larger role than ever before.

Ali Krieger, center back?

Ali Krieger's international renaissance continues, with the 35-year-old maintaining not just a place on the roster, but a place on the field despite being left in the wilderness for most of the two years preceding the 2019 Women's World Cup. 

That she started at center back vs. Panama and Costa Rica indicates that she could perhaps prolong her career even more by displaying roster flexibility. When it comes to the Olympics, versatility is key due to the small roster sizes. It must be said that Tierna Davidson–capable of playing fullback and center back–not being in camp now due to a lingering injury has given Krieger the ability to show out here, and she'll likely be on the roster bubble presuming the U.S. qualifies. Playing at center back is not a new or novel concept for Krieger, who does so for the Orlando Pride with regularity, but that she's getting the chance to do so under Andonovski shows that at the very least she is getting the opportunities to play her way into Olympic contention at a position where Becky Sauerbrunn and Abby Dahlkemper remain the first-choice options.

"I really feel comfortable and confident at center back and outside back," Krieger said following the Panama match. "It's fun to go back outside and kind of run and be more into the attack, but I really love defending. 

"We're building out of the back a lot now with this team, so a lot of the game starts with our center backs. ... I've been working a lot on my entry passes, so I'm hoping that I'm connecting at a high percentage with that. It's a lot of responsibility at center back. I'm willing to take that on and do whatever Vlatko needs me to do. Wherever I'm able to play and affect the team in a positive way and help us be successful, then I'm going to be open to do that."

Emptying the bench

Over the course of three games, Andonovski has played everyone on his 20-player roster so far aside from goalkeeper Adrianna Franch. That would indicate that Alyssa Naeher and Ashlyn Harris have the inside track on the two goalkeeper spots on the eventual 18-player roster, should the U.S. qualify for Tokyo. It also indicates that Andonovski is doing his diligence and navigating his first international competition wisely, spreading out the minutes and ensuring fresher legs throughout the rapid-fire tournament.