US' road to London starts in Vancouver

US' road to London starts in Vancouver

Published Jan. 14, 2012 12:00 a.m. ET

The road to gold kicks off Friday for the United States women’s national soccer team as CONCACAF Olympic qualifying gets under way in Vancouver, Canada. The US must make the final of the tournament to compete at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, playing a hearty five games in just nine days.

Because the two finalists automatically take the Olympic leap, the critical game for the US will be the fourth of five: a must-win semifinal fixture that could come against regional rival and host Canada.

Qualifying isn’t the breeze it once was for the Americans. The teams around the world are better — a side effect of having a professional league in the United States has been raising the level of other countries’ players. Any remaining questions about the difficulty ahead should have been dispelled by the Americans’ struggle just to make the last World Cup. After being stunned by Mexico in regional qualification, the US was forced to survive a two-leg play-in with Italy in November 2010. Key forward Abby Wambach noted ruefully that those lessons had not been lost on this year’s team.

“There’s no better motivation than having things not go as you planned,” Wambach said. “The last (qualifying) didn’t go as we planned, and we were fortunate to have a second chance. This time, we don’t have a second chance. It’s not something that we talk about; it’s something that we know.”


“You cannot just show up and expect to win,” warned Wambach, who was notably careful not to assume the US would be in London this summer. “The teams in this tournament have a very good chance of beating us on any given day.”

Some of that has to come down to familiarity. There are no secrets about who is playing for the American women, as every member of the 2011 World Cup squad is in attendance at the tournament — which runs from Jan. 19 to Jan. 29 — and twelve of those players are also holdovers from the 2008 Games.

There is less certainty about how the Americans will actually play. Coach Pia Sundhage has been struggling to shift the US from a decades-old style that prizes reaction and muscle to a more passing-oriented game. The results have been mixed as the US still relies far too often on Wambach to score and needs far too many chances to actually get shots on goal.

The Americans are likely to line up in a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Wambach forming the tip of the trident alone. That formation is supposed to give both flexibility and width (Wambach noted the team easily can slide into a more familiar 4-4-2), two things that were not always in evidence last summer in Germany.

“Depending on how we play it, sometimes it will look like a 4-5-1, sometimes it will go into a 4-4-2,” Wambach said. “We think it can give us a lot of different things to do and different ways to attack. That was something Pia learned from the last World Cup, I think — we need to get the ball wide and get the ball into the box, but beyond that we also want to play better soccer. We’re not Barcelona, but as a player you want to stretch yourself and that’s what Pia’s doing.”

There are also few surprises about which 11 will start as it stands. Barring injury, and if the US does play this modified 4-5-1, the preferred lineup will have Hope Solo in goal, with Carli Lloyd and Shannon Boxx as the holding midfielders in front of her flat back four: Amy LePeilbet, Ali Krieger, Christie Rampone and Rachel Buehler. Lauren Cheney, Heather O’Reilly and Amy Rodriguez will line up in the triangle behind Wambach. Young Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe are likely to come off the bench for late spark and flair.

While on paper there are few teams that can compete with the US in terms of talent or depth, the compressed schedule and the pressures of regional rivalries do mean that some of these games are up for grabs. Wambach lamented the schedule, noting, “We understand it’s a money thing, but moving forward we hope it can be a longer process.”

There’s also a lot of off-field pressure on the team. The struggling women’s professional league, WPS, has hitched its caboose to the US national team, hoping that if the women do well, fans will come out to see them. That notion seems foolhardy given the sport’s checkered professional history, but it weighs heavily on the players — many of whom are not even playing in the league this season as it stands.

“We also realize that we have an opportunity to reach even more fans by hopefully qualifying, going to London and winning a gold medal,” said Wambach, whose last club, magicJack, was forcibly folded, setting off a bitter legal dispute with WPS that is currently in court. “Women’s soccer isn’t over that metaphorical hump. We still need help and sponsorships, especially with what’s going on with the league here. But we believe if we represent the USA well, we’ll do nothing but good things for women’s soccer.”

Finally, there’s the sense that for many players, this could be the last run at glory. Many of the key players — Boxx, Rampone, LePeilbet, Lloyd, Solo and Wambach — are likely to be aged out by the time the next World Cup rolls around, to say nothing of the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro.

Right now, however, Wambach and her team are focused exclusively on the task at hand.

“Everything is in our hands right now,” Wambach said. “If we can win everything in our group stage, we can win and we can qualify.”