Qualifying starts. Maura Gladys has you covered.
The last time the U.S. Women’s National Team competed in a CONCACAF qualifying tournament, they almost missed the cut for the 2011 Women’s World Cup. Only a two-legged playoff series with Italy, which was essentially won by then-newcomer Alex Morgan, saved the USWNT from missing their first major international tournament in history.
Entering the CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament, which kicks off tonight, the U.S. Women’s National Team will be looking to erase those memories and secure their spot in this summer’s Olympic Games. While that is an extremely realistic and achievable goal, it’s not as much of a sure-thing as it’s been in the past, and the tournament will by no means be a cake walk.
The top two teams in the eight-team tournament book their tickets to London, meaning that the two semifinal matches are much more crucial than the championship match.
In order to make their passage easier, the U.S. will have to take care of business earlier rather than later. They start off group play with matches against the Dominican Republic tonight and Guatemala on Sunday, what should be two victories. (Although who doesn’t remember the USMNT’s loss to Panama in last summer’s Gold Cup.) In their final group play match, the U.S. takes on Mexico. A win here is crucial as it should allow them to avoid playing Canada in the all-important semifinal. (This is assuming that Canada does its part and wins Group B as well.) If the U.S. can get past Mexico, they should miss playing a very good Canadian team at home and instead face a much more manageable squad (such as Costa Rica.)
Sundhage’s roster feels more and more static, featuring the same 20 or so names for the past year. This version features only one addition, recent number one WPS Draft pick Sydney Leroux. While Leroux, a Vancouver native, is probably a bit of a sentimental pick, she could see some time during the U.S.’ earlier games.
But the player that may make the difference, or at least add the most change to the lineup is Kelley O’Hara. O’Hara was a striker throughout all of college, and featured on the left wing during her brief appearance in last summer’s Women’s World Cup.
But she was listed as a defender for this tournament, and US Soccer’s press release throws out the idea that O’Hara could see time at left back.
This switch could pay off tremendously. The U.S. has struggled to find someone who could really own that left side slot to balance out the superb play of Ali Krieger on the right. O’Hara would provide the forward-looking play, skills and speed that fit in with the possession-based style that Sundhage is trying to implement. This would mean more overlaps, more defensive attacks, and a more dangerous defense. If Sundhage insists on going with the same 20 players every time, this switch could be just what the squad needs to add a little more spark.
But don’t be surprised if the team falls back on it’s more traditional athletic style rather than the possession play that Sundhage has been encouraging. The entire tournament is being played indoors on artificial turf, causing faster play, more bounces and 50/50 balls and inviting a more physical style. While the U.S. may be able to still work on their possession game in their earlier matches, when the stakes are high, and the turf is slick, they might revert to the style that has brought them success in the past.