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.