USWNT gear up for Olympic qualifying with an eye to Rio

Carli Lloyd hopes to lead the USWNT to a berth at the 2016 Olympic Gamea

Todd Warshaw/Getty Images

With the 2015 Women’s World Cup title under its belt, the U.S. women’s national soccer team is about to get to work on its next big prize: The 2016 Olympic gold medal. To get to Rio, the U.S. women must make it through to the Feb. 21 final of the 2016 CONCACAF Women’s Olympic Qualifying Championship. 

The U.S. is looking to join qualifiers New Zealand, Brazil, Colombia, France, Germany, South Africa and Zimbabwe in Brazil, along with one other CONCACAF women’s soccer team. In addition to the two CONCACAF spots, three other berths are up for grabs, including two teams from Asia and a final European team, which will come out a four-team playoff in March between Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and the Netherlands.

For the U.S. women, the tournament kicks off at 8:30 p.m. ET Wednesday at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas. Captains Carli Lloyd and Becky Sauerbrunn will lead the U.S. women against Costa Rica, the No. 34-ranked team according to FIFA. Two additional Group A matches for the U.S. will be against Mexico (Feb. 13, 2 p.m. ET) and Puerto Rico (Feb. 15, 8:30 p.m.). 

The semifinal is set for Feb. 19 at BVAA Compass Stadium in Houston, but it’s safe to say that the U.S. is aiming for a showdown in the final against Canada, FIFA’s No. 11-ranked team in the world. This scenario would allow both the Americans and Canadians to earn an Olympic berth, as the top two finishers go to Brazil. It would also bring a nice dose of drama to the tournament. The U.S. won their third Women’s World Cup in Vancouver on July 5, while Christine Sinclair and her vaunted Canadian side faltered in the quarterfinals under the home-country pressure of hosting the big tournament. 

While the U.S. and Canada have faced off in closed-door games during training, a showdown at the Qualifying Championship will rekindle the drama of the 2012 Olympics in London. It was there that the U.S. slipped past Canada, 4-3, in a contentious semifinal match at Old Trafford Stadium that some have hailed as the greatest women’s soccer match ever. The U.S. went on to win the 2012 gold medal, while Canada will be itching to right what it considers a wrongful set of officiating calls that led to their 2012 demise. 

In the next two weeks, Canada headlines Group B, along with Guatemala, Trinidad & Tobago and Guyana, which will play doubleheaders at BBVA Compass Stadium in Houston on Feb. 11, 14 and 16.  

The Americans have several issues to confront in the coming weeks as well, starting with who will actually play. U.S. coach Jill Ellis has brought a squad of 18 players to Texas that features seven new players absent from the Women’s World Cup roster. Lloyd will be the featured player on offense along with striker Alex Morgan. Sauerbrunn anchors a backline that is largely responsible for keeping the U.S. team in the hunt during the early games of the 2015 Women’s World Cup. The U.S. will also get veteran play out of goalkeeper Hope Solo. 

But excitement about the "new" U.S. women’s national team hangs on the performances of newcomers Lindsey Horan and Crystal Dunn, who will be featured players in the midfield and out on the flank. Meanwhile, youngsters like defenders Emily Sonnett and Jaelene Hickle; midfielder Samantha Mewis and forwards Mallory Pugh and Stephanie McCaffrey are also in line for playing time, now that Lauren Holiday and Abby Wambach are retired; Megan Rapinoe is out rehabbing her surgically repaired ACL and Sydney Leroux and Amy Rodriguez will miss action this year due to pregnancies. 

Beyond the potential U.S. vs. Canada showdown in the final on February 21, there are two other critical plotlines that need to be resolved before the Americans head to the Games.

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The first is the major, mosquito-borne viral outbreak affecting much of the Americas.

The mosquito-borne Zika virus has caused a spike of microcephaly in Brazil, where the rate of that birth defect has caused the World Health Organization to declare an international health emergency as of Feb. 1. Meanwhile, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is advising pregnant women –or those considering becoming pregnant — to avoid travel to places with Zika outbreaks. 

U.S. Soccer has not responded yet to these warnings, as the U.S. women’s national soccer team has yet to qualify for the Aug. 3-20 Summer Games in Brazil.  However, the United States Olympic Committee has notified all U.S. sports federations that U.S. athletes who are concerned about contracting the Zika virus should opt out of competing in Brazil. 

According to Reuters, that message was delivered in a conference call involving USOC officials and leaders of U.S. sport federations in late January. Federations were told that no one should go to Brazil "if they don’t feel comfortable going. Bottom line," Donald Anthony, president and board chairman of USA Fencing, told Reuters.

And then there’s a lawsuit: the U.S. women will play in this CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying Championship under a legal cloud as their union representative seeks a new contract from U.S. Soccer. Despite apparent moves on both sides to negotiate a new deal for the 2015 Women’s World Cup champs, the situation grew tense when U.S. Soccer filed a lawsuit in federal court on Feb. 3. 

The federation is seeking clarification about the collective bargaining status after Richard Nichols, the executive director of the Women’s National Team Players’ Association, informed U.S. Soccer that after Feb. 24, the union might walk away from the memorandum of understanding. This 2013 document is being disputed by the players union, which contends that the memorandum is unsigned and not a collective bargaining agreement.

Nichols, who was brought in by the players union to negotiate a new deal for the women’s team players, is seeking to use the 2015 Women’s World Cup title and the 2016 Summer Games as leverage to win new terms for the players. U.S. Soccer maintains that the current deal with the women is valid through Dec. 2016. That means this Olympic qualifying tournament will be played amidst labor tension. 

But first thing’s first for the USWNT, locking down wins to earn a spot in Rio.