To say that the U.S. Women’s National Soccer team (USWNT) has had a busy few months in the past year is an understatement. They won the World Cup back in July 2015, but not just in any fashion; they dominated. The USWNT never lost a game in the tournament and then avenged their previous World Cup loss to Japan with a 5-2 victory. They did this while crushing previous viewership ratings. It was the most watched soccer game in U.S. history, and their star players became household names. Their win earned them a visit to the White House. And as if that was not enough, they said farewell to one of history’s greatest players when Abby Wambach retired in December.
Just when it seemed like the media frenzy began to slow down, the USWNT had to begin qualifying for the 2016 Olympics in Brazil, the beginning of the road to defend their 2012 gold medal. One could forgive them if there was some kind of hangover effect in the early going, but they picked up right where they left off. With new additions to the roster of young and upcoming players like 21-year-old Lindsey Horan and 17-year-old Mallory Pugh, the USWNT is hitting the ground running in this next stage of international play.
The U.S. was placed in the qualifying group with Mexico, Costa Rica and Puerto Rico. They began group play with an electric performance against Costa Rica. Alex Morgan essentially set the tone for the entire qualifying round as she scored within the first minute of that game. Right after her goal, captain Carli Lloyd, the breakout player from this summer’s World Cup, scored on a penalty in the ninth minute, and Crystal Dunn in the 15th. Rather than looking sluggish or fatigued, this team looked like they could not wait to get back to showing that they are the best team in the world. They went on to win that game by a final score of 5-0.
Next came the game against Mexico, the team most expected to give the USWNT their biggest challenge. Mexico came out and it was clear that they intended to play as defensively as they could. While the USWNT had some scoring opportunities, they were never able to capitalize and were starting to get frustrated at their inability to break through. However, in the 80th minute, a controversial handball call against Mexico gave the U.S. a penalty opportunity. Taking it was none other than Player of the Year Carli Lloyd, and while her shot was blocked, she was able to follow it up and put it in the empty net. Mexico came very close to tying it in the 87th minute, but a clutch save by Hope Solo sealed the win. While it may not have been the performance they wanted, the win guaranteed the USWNT a spot in the qualifying semifinal, where a win would help them clinch a spot in the Olympics.
To finish up group play, the U.S. took on Puerto Rico in a game that was pretty much a formality. The U.S. had no problem with this one as they put away Puerto Rico 10-0, which gave them the top spot in their group. Their first place finish in their group gives them a pairing with Trinidad and Tobago, the second seed from group B, and the winner will qualify for the Olympics. The game will be in Houston, Texas on Feb. 19 at 7:30 p.m.