The United States starts its pursuit of a fourth straight gold medal in women’s Olympic soccer over the next two weeks at the CONCACAF qualifying tournament in Texas.
Coming off their first World Cup title since 1999, the Americans face Costa Rica on Wednesday night in Frisco, Texas, to open the group stage, then play Mexico and Puerto Rico in Group A.
Group B includes Canada, Guatemala, Trinidad and Tobago and Guyana.
Winners of the semifinal winners on Feb. 19 will represent the North and Central America and Caribbean region at this year’s Olympics in Brazil. Additional matches will be played in Houston.
Ranked No. 1 in the world, the U.S. has won three straight gold medals and four of the five women’s tournaments, including the inaugural competition at home in 1996. The only other nation to win a gold medal was Norway in 2000.
“I think we’ve got enough experience here and playing in big events, these players understand on any given day this game can go upside down,” U.S. coach Jill Ellis said. “So it really is about our preparation and focus in the match and execution at this point.”
Just 13 of the 20 players on the youthful U.S. roster were on last year’s World Cup squad.
“We’re re-energized. We’re ready to go; we’re ready to start the tournament,” American defender Ali Krieger said. “A lot of our families are able to come travel here, so that’s nice to have the tournament in the U.S.”
Last week, the U.S. Soccer Federation sued the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team Players Association, asking a federal court to rule the sides have a collective bargaining agreement in place through this year. The union says that under the memorandum of understanding agreed to in 2013, the deal can be terminated at any time.
“It’s easy to put that aside because what’s most important right now is qualifying for the Olympics and playing against Costa Rica in that game on Wednesday,” Krieger said. “That’s kind of our safe haven. You can get out on the field and kind of forget about everything else and take care of business and that’s what we’re going to do.”
Also in qualifying:
OH CANADA!: Ranked No. 11 in the world, Canada was the surprise bronze medalist at the 2012 London Games, defeating France 1-0. Canada also hosted the World Cup last summer and lost to England 2-1 in the quarterfinals.
The qualifying roster includes captain Christine Sinclair, tied with American Mia Hamm for second on the career women’s scoring list with 158 goals. Sinclair, who played for the University of Portland and currently is on the roster for the NWSL’s Portland Thorns, has 232 international appearances.
LLOYD’S HEALTH: During training for the qualification tournament, Carli Lloyd left practice after trainers checked her pulse. Turns out that Lloyd was just feeling under the weather, and she later posted to Twitter: “Not to worry. I am all good.” Lloyd, who scored a hat trick in the World Cup final against Japan, was practicing at 100 percent on Monday, Ellis said.
WHO’S MISSING? Since last summer’s World Cup, Abby Wambach, Lauren Holiday, Shannon Boxx and Lori Chalupny have retired. Christie Rampone and Megan Rapinoe are injured, and Amy Rodriguez and Sydney Leroux are pregnant and taking time off.
WHO’S ALREADY HEADING FOR RIO? Colombia, France, Germany, New Zealand, South Africa and Zimbabwe have qualified to join host Brazil in the 12-nation field. The remaining berths will be decided in March at the European and Asian qualifying tournaments.
MEXICO TURBULANCE: Mexico’s roster doesn’t include Charlyn Corral, a forward who plays professionally in Spain and is considered one of the nation’s top female players. Corral, who played the University of Louisville, was critical of longtime Mexico coach Leo Cuellar following the World Cup.
Following the release of the qualifying roster, Corral went to Facebook to announce that she was retiring from the “current” national team.
“Football has given me so much, it has helped me forge values, discipline and a privileged upbringing,” she wrote. “Finally, I want to say to all the women footballers of our country that don’t stop chasing your dreams and don’t let anyone cut them wings. Before footballers we are people, women, and our success depends on our actions, not our limitations.”