Alex Morgan chases the ball during a game on Aug. 31, 2018 in Carson, Calif.
Though the players who were there will likely never forget it, the disappointment of the Olympic Games Rio 2016 seems further and further away the more the U.S. women’s soccer team wins.
In the two years since the U.S. women placed fifth in Rio, marking their lowest finish ever in a major international tournament, coach Jill Ellis has gotten a look at a lot of different players in a lot of matches. There have been some growing pains along the way, such as three home losses in 2017, but the Americans have emerged stronger through the rebuilding process.
The U.S. heads into the 2018 Concacaf Women’s Championship having not lost since July 27, 2017, a run of 21 matches. While it is far from the best stretch in program history – that would be the 43-game unbeaten streak from 2012 to 2014 – it’s no doubt a positive sign that the women are playing their best soccer at the right time.
Unlike the men’s Gold Cup, the Concacaf Women’s Championship is about more than just regional superiority. The tournament also represents the federation’s qualifying process for the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup next summer in France. The top three finishers will earn automatic World Cup spots, while the fourth will enter into a playoff against Argentina, which finished third in South American qualifying.
Here’s what you should know as the tournament kicks off.
How The Tournament Works
The eight-team tournament places four teams in two groups, with the top two in each group after round-robin play moving onto a knockout stage. Up first for the Americans is rival Mexico Thursday evening, followed by Panama on Oct. 7 and Trinidad and Tobago on Oct. 10. All Group A matches take place in Cary, North Carolina.
The top two teams from each group advance to the semifinals on Oct. 14 and medal round on Oct. 17, with those games being held in Frisco, Texas. A win in the semifinals secures a World Cup berth, as does victory in the third-place game.
Team USA’s Chances
The U.S. might be the most successful country in women’s soccer history and the defending champion, but World Cup qualification is not a birthright. As recently as 2010, the U.S. team came oh-so-close to missing the next year’s World Cup when it lost to Mexico in the Concacaf semifinals and ended up finishing third. With only two automatic qualifiers at the time, the U.S. needed to win a home-and-home series with Italy to clinch qualification.
That said, Concacaf now has three automatic qualifiers, and scoring one of them should be no sweat for the U.S., which has won every other World Cup qualifying tournament it has taken part in.
Newcomers To Fill Key Roles
Winning on paper and winning on the pitch are two different things. And there again will be some element of mystery to the U.S. as its 20-player roster contains a mix of experience. Half the team has never played in a World Cup qualifier before.
Those players are goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher; defenders Abby Dahlkemper, Crystal Dunn, UCLA senior Hailie Mace, Casey Short and Emily Sonnett; midfielders Lindsey Horan, Rose Lavelle and Samantha Mewis; and forward Mallory Pugh.
It is at the back where the U.S. has had the most experimentation in the past two years. But just because the players are new to World Cup qualifying doesn’t mean they lack international experience. Dunn has made 69 caps and scored 23 goals; she was named to the roster in 2014 but was unable to play due to injury and was one of the final cuts for the World Cup team.
One rising star who will not be with the U.S. this week is injured defender Tierna Davidson. The 19-year-old has risen quickly up the depth chart and has made 12 caps this year after making her national team debut in January.
Plenty Of Experience, Especially Up Front
Despite so many World Cup qualifying newcomers, the U.S. is rich in experience. Forward Carli Lloyd leads the roster in both all-time caps (259) and World Cup qualifying caps (14). Forwards Megan Rapinoe (10 qualifying caps) and Alex Morgan (7) are next.
The rest of the roster includes goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris; defenders Kelley O’Hara and Becky Sauerbrunn; midfielders Morgan Brian and Julie Ertz (who filled Dunn’s spot on the 2014 roster but didn’t play); and forwards Tobin Heath and Christen Press. All were on the 2015 World Cup team.
The U.S. is deepest at forward, where Rapinoe, Morgan and Lloyd are among the best players in the world. The six U.S. forwards on the roster have scored 28 of the team’s 37 goals in 2018. Morgan is the team leader with 10. All six have played at a World Cup qualifying tournament before, and five have made multiple appearances.
Throughout the period of lineup experimentation, the U.S. has been boosted by the versatility of its players. Ertz, a defensive midfielder with the NWSL’s Chicago Red Stars, has settled in nicely as a center back with the national team.
While a coach is never done evaluating players and trying to improve the team, Ellis can take comfort in the fact her team is closer to the end of the process, and to a fourth World Cup title, than it was at the final whistle in Rio.
By Todd Kortemeier | Oct. 03, 2018, 2:23 p.m. (ET)
This content was originally published here.