BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil – A new era opens for the U.S. women’s soccer team at the Olympic Games when a generation of younger players seeks to continue the global domination established at last year’s World Cup.
Bidding to add Olympic gold to World Cup success, the U.S. will have 11 Olympic newcomers on its roster when it opens against New Zealand on Wednesday at the Mineirao Stadium.
It will be the team’s first major competition since the retirement of players such as Abby Wambach and Lauren Holiday following last year’s triumph in Canada.
“Of course we had some gigantic losses, some players that have been around the game for quite some time, and they are irreplaceable, really,” veteran goalkeeper Hope Solo said. “But we have something different and I don’t think anybody has seen the U.S. team as we are right now. Nobody knows what to expect, with our younger players, with our new talent, with our formation. So I think it’s going to be exciting.”
Seeking a fourth straight Olympic gold, the Americans are also without Christine Rampone because of injury, while Sydney Leroux and Amy Rodriguez are pregnant. Two other key players, captain Carli Lloyd and midfielder Megan Rapinoe are coming to Brazil recovering from health problems. Rapinoe is not expected to play in the early games.
“There’s been a little bit of a change in the roster, but it’s good,” Lloyd said. “I think we have about 11 players who are competing in their first Olympics, which is a huge turnaround, but I also think that those players bring experience, they’ve been around this team, they’ve earned quite a few a caps with the team and are doing very well. So I think that, mixed in with us old folks, we will be all right.”
Among the Olympic newcomers are a few players who also made it to the World Cup last year, including Meghan Klingenberg, Ali Krieger, Morgan Brian and Whitney Engen. The youngest player in the current roster is 18-year-old Mallory Pugh. The U.S. is trying to become the first team to win the Olympics after succeeding at the World Cup.
Lloyd, the team’s captain in Rio, said the U.S. remains favored to win the title despite the revamped team.
“I think the toughest (opponents) are going to be ourselves,” said Lloyd, who scored a hat trick in the World Cup final against Japan. “No other team should intimidate our team. Of course, there are going to be tough contenders, but honestly, not a single team intimidates me.”
The U.S. is trying to win its fifth gold medal since women’s soccer became an Olympic sport in 1996. It won its third World Cup title in Canada, the first since 1999.
“I think we are always feeling the pressure of coming back with gold. It’s just in our DNA,” Lloyd said. “Even if we hadn’t won the World Cup we’d still be under tremendous pressure to win. It comes with being the No. 1 team in the world and going for a fourth consecutive gold medal. We are super excited to get started. I know this team has a lot of talent and depth and we have the opportunity to really create history.”
After playing New Zealand, the U.S. faces powerhouse France and then Colombia in Group G of the 12-team Olympic tournament. Second-ranked Germany, fifth-ranked Australia, sixth-ranked Sweden and host Brazil loom as potential quarterfinal opponents.
“We as a team acknowledge the pressure,” Solo said. “We know that the target is on our backs. We are ranked No. 1 for quite some time, we won last year’s World Cup, we won the last Olympics. It doesn’t make it easy. We don’t come into any tournament with an extreme amount of confidence or arrogance. We know that the job is going to be extremely difficult to repeat winning a gold medal.”
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