While 2016 has been a busy year for the U.S. Women’s National Team – par for the course for any year hosting an Olympic Games – the USA has made the most of its eventful schedule during the run-up to the tournament and the first five months of the year can be described as highly successful. The USA is 11-0-0 in 2016, earning 10 shutouts while allowing just one goal.
The U.S. Women kicked off its Olympic cycle with a 5-0 win against Ireland in late January and then went on to qualify for the Olympic Games while also winning two tournaments – the CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying Championship, its fourth consecutive title at such event, in February; and the SheBelieves Cup in March. In April, the U.S. women played two friendly matches against Olympic Group G opponent Colombia, winning 7-0 and 3-0 with seven different players scoring the 10 goals.
Following the games against Colombia, the U.S. WNT returned to their respective National Women’s Soccer League clubs to kick off the historic fourth season, thus maintaining their fitness and sharpening their leadership skills during the break from National Team duties. Six weeks later, they are back together in Denver, Colorado to resume preparations for the 2016 Olympic Games with a pair of matches against 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup finalist Japan, on June 2 in Denver and June 5 in Cleveland.
“It’s good to be back in camp,” said U.S. WNT goalkeeper Hope Solo. “I think what’s great is that everyone is fit because we’ve been playing games in the NWSL. Of course, there’s a couple of people who are battling injuries like Carli Lloyd but she’s coming back healthy and strong. It’s nice to see everyone feel confident because we’ve been playing, we’ve been getting minutes. I think it makes for a short, strong camp where we can get in specific work.”
After the matches against Japan, the USA will finish its Road to Rio with two Olympic Send-Off games, a meeting with South Africa for the first time in history on July 9 in Chicago, and a soon to be announced match in late July right before the team departs for Brazil.
The countdown to Brazil is ticking and there is little time left before the quest for Olympic gold begins anew. The players – who are trying to make the Olympic roster -- and staff – who are picking it -- knows this is the time when every training, every gym session and of course, every match, represents a chance to impress, improve and tweak anything that needs fine-tuning. It is important to peak at the right time and the U.S. has always proved to be adept at finding that final chemistry on the field before taking it to the big stage. This is one of the reasons why this two-game set against Japan will be an excellent test of mental and physical strength.
“We have two games against a great team,” said Solo. “I know Japan doesn’t have a lot of their well-known players but we’re all really excited to see the younger, technical side of Japan. We don’t know what they’re going to bring but it will be great, and it will be a little bit different than what we’ve seen in the past.”
The USA and Japan have a rich history dating back to 1986, but it’s the more recent meetings between the two sides that have bound these two countries together in women’s soccer history and provided a world class display of talent, emotion and gritty competition. Japan will miss out on this year’s Olympic Games after failing to qualify out of the difficult Asian Football Confederation, but that will not diminish the intensity and quality of the games we can expect to see.
The USA and Japan have met in the last three world finals, with the USA losing the 2011 Women’s World Cup in penalty kicks after a 2-2 tie over regulation and overtime, then winning the 2012 Olympic goal medal game 2-1, and the historic 2015 Women’s World Cup Final 5-2. These will be the first meetings with Japan since the Women’s World Cup and the USA has an all-time record of 25-1-6 against the Asian nation, outscoring them 92-22.
With only four international friendly games left on the schedule before the team hops on a plane to Brazil, the U.S. WNT is aware of the importance of time and the challenges that await in Group G, where the USA will face New Zealand, France and Colombia. The USA has played all three of those opponents in the last year and is more than ready to get things started. Solo, who with 98 shutouts is only two away from becoming the first goalkeeper in U.S. history to reach the century mark, put it best:
“On our workout sheets today said 67 days to Rio. The countdown has started. Before you know it, it’s going to be here.”