CARSON, Calif. — The world champion U.S. women’s national team faces Mexico in a winner-take-all game for a berth in the 2020 Olympics on Friday night (10 p.m. ET, FS1, Galavision). And while the U.S. has an all-time record against Mexico of 36 wins, 1 tie and 1 loss, that one epic defeat still serves as a reminder of what can happen in a one-game situation with a major tournament berth on the line.
On Nov. 5, 2010, in Cancún, Mexico beat the U.S. 2-1 to advance to the 2011 Women’s World Cup. Megan Rapinoe was on the field that day, and on Thursday she recalled that some U.S. players were so distraught after that loss that they thought they had been eliminated from World Cup 2011—when in fact they could still qualify by winning the next Concacaf game (against Costa Rica) and then beating Italy in a home-and-home playoff. They did that, becoming the final team to qualify for Germany 2011.
“I think everybody here knows about [2010 vs. Mexico],” said Rapinoe on Thursday. “We certainly talked about it at the last qualifier, and it’s almost the same group. 'Yeah, no messing around!' That was terrible … It’s just a little nugget to increase everyone’s intensity and seriousness [this time].”
Friday’s game will mark the second time the U.S. has faced Mexico with a major-tournament berth on the line since 2010. The U.S. beat Mexico 3-0 in 2014 to qualify for the following year’s World Cup. But the challenge for Mexico may be the biggest one it has had yet against the U.S. in these situations. The U.S. has gotten better as the tournament has progressed, and Mexico will be without midfielder Rebeca Bernal, who’s suspended on yellow card accumulation.
In the big picture, Friday is a means to an end for the U.S., a required step in the process. But because the schedule of major women’s tournaments is unbalanced, with the Olympics coming the year after a World Cup, Rapinoe says preparing for an Olympic year is different than doing so for a World Cup year. On Thursday, she was asked if there was anything that had been learned four years ago about the transition to that Olympic year, which resulted in a crushing quarterfinal exit from Rio 2016.
“I think we should remind ourselves every day: It is really easy to get prepared for the World Cup,” Rapinoe said. “You have this big, long run-up and something you’re thinking about for a long time. And when January comes around in that World Cup year, it’s like you’re been waiting for it. Whereas you haven’t been waiting for the Olympics until really after the World Cup.
“It’s a conscious choice to make it your top priority every single day like you do in the World Cup, and I think that’s a lot harder,” she continued. “We have the Victory Tour, and obviously winning is fun and you can sort of breathe easy for a minute. But then you have to really refocus and remember that every day for years you were making that your No. 1 priority … It’s not just that we had a lot going on last year or we’re tired from last year. It’s sort of that shift in mental focus of how do you keep yourself totally mentally focused for 18 straight months? It’s difficult, and it’s going to take a lot more of that kind of intentional, concerted effort to do that this year than it will for the World Cup.”
There’s a reason, after all, why no Women’s World Cup champion has ever gone on to win the Olympic gold medal the year after. And Rapinoe and her U.S. teammates want to rectify that in 2020.
One U.S. player that she’s expecting to have back on the field for this summer in Japan is Alex Morgan, the forward who was spotted here with the team on Wednesday. Morgan has been going viral this week with videos showing her working on shooting drills while seven months pregnant. When asked about it on Thursday, Rapinoe smiled.
“People love that stuff,” she said. “I mean, people eat up athletes posting themselves doing workouts all the time. I don’t know why. People just love that. So certainly add a pregnant superstar in there, that’s like the ultimate: People just can’t contain themselves. I think, too, she’s obviously wanting to make it back for the Olympics. So everyone’s doing their calculations in their head of, like, ‘Oh, I watched this video at seven months and this is what she looked like, and is she going to be able to get back?’”
Are Rapinoe and her teammates doing those calculations on Morgan too?
“I don’t think so,” Rapinoe said. “I think if she’s ready and she’s coming back, then we’ll know when she’s ready. I don’t need to see her at seven months pregnant. Like she’s obviously not ready now, but you know she’s going to take care of herself in this. She’s a consummate professional all the time.”
For Morgan to be ready by July, though, the U.S. women need to have an Olympic tournament in which to play. They’ll find out if they’ll be there on Friday night.