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U.S. women’s soccer team begins quest for Olympic gold in Tampa

The national team hopes to follow World Cup supremacy by also conquering the Tokyo Games.
In this Oct. 3 file photo, forward Megan Rapinoe (15) works the ball down the sideline during the U.S. Women's National Team's victory tour match between the USA and the South Korea at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C. [DANNIE WALLS  |  ZUMAPRESS.com]
In this Oct. 3 file photo, forward Megan Rapinoe (15) works the ball down the sideline during the U.S. Women's National Team's victory tour match between the USA and the South Korea at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C. [DANNIE WALLS | ZUMAPRESS.com]

TAMPA — Fresh off a championship at the 2019 World Cup, the U.S. women’s soccer team has started its quest for a gold medal at the 2020 Olympics. The journey started this week at the Tournament SportsPlex of Tampa Bay, where the team is holding its training camp before playing in an Olympic qualifying tournament begins this month in Houston.

The training sessions are closed to the public, and no exhibition matches are scheduled.

The roster will be pared from 26 to 20 after Wednesday, when the team breaks camp.

In the six Olympics in which women’s soccer has been contested, the United States has won four gold medals and one silver. Its only non-medal performance was in the last Olympics; it lost in penalty kicks to Sweden in the quarterfinals and finished fifth in Rio de Janeiro.

Here are four things to know about the Americans as they prepare for this summer’s Games in Tokyo.

Same team, new coach

In this Nov. 10 file photo, United States coach Vlatko Andonovski looks on during a match against Costa Rica at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville. [ANDREW BERSHAW | ZUMAPRESS.com]

The team is about as intact as it can be. The only player who was on the 2019 World Cup roster not competing this year is Alex Morgan, who is pregnant. Morgan, 30, played on the gold-medal-winning 2012 Olympic team and the ’16 team. Megan Rapinoe, Carli Lloyd and Ali Krieger are among the notable players returning from the team that scored a World Cup-record 26 goals last year.

The biggest change is coach Vlatko Andonovski, who took over for Jill Ellis in October. Andonovski, 43, spent the past seven years coaching in the National Women’s Soccer League. He knows expectations are high and what might happen if the United States doesn’t win gold again.

“Go ahead and say it; I’m going to lose my job,” Andonovski joked. “When I took this position, I was well aware of the pressure. It’s the best team in the world. They are expected to win. I’m aware of that.

“But we don’t have to reinvent the wheel here. We do need to keep evolving. The other countries are getting better. They are scouting us, trying to figure out ways to beat us. We have to get better in order to overcome that.”

Rapinoe, 34, who was voted the best player at last year’s World Cup, gave the new coach her full endorsement.

“Having Vlatko is a new vibe, an energizing vibe,” said Rapinoe, who was the top scorer in the World Cup with six goals. “Everyone has a clean slate with the new coaching staff.”

How it works

The United States is in Group A for CONCACAF Olympic qualifying along with Haiti, Panama and Costa Rica. Group B has Canada, Mexico, Jamaica, and Saint Kitts and Nevis.

All Group A games will be played Jan. 28-Feb. 3 in Houston. Group B games are Jan. 29-Feb. 4 in Edinburg, Texas.

The Americans are a heavy favorite to advance to the Feb. 7 semifinals in Carson, Calif. Both semifinal winners qualifying for the Olympics. The championship match is Feb. 9 in Carson.

Which are the teams to watch?

“Us,” Rapinoe said. “Actually, the region is really difficult. Women’s soccer as a whole is getting so much better. Canada is really strong. Costa Rica has a really strong team. It’s difficult because there are a lot of games squashed into a small space.”

The off-field fight continues

Ali Krieger is among the top players returning for the United States during the Olympic qualifying run. [JONATHAN MOSCROP | ZUMAPRESS.com]

The team continues its gender discrimination battle with U.S. Soccer.

The players sued U.S. Soccer in March, charging institutionalized gender discrimination that includes inequitable compensation when compared with their counterparts on the men’s team. The federation countered that pay and benefits for both teams, bargained by separate unions, can’t be compared and said there was no basis for allegations of illegal conduct.

A trial is scheduled for May. The Olympics are July 24-Aug. 9.

With yet another international tournament this summer, the team will have the spotlight for more than just its play.

“You can’t create change by staying in your lane,” Krieger said. “I think we’ve done a good job as a unit and individually to fight for things we want to see changed. We use our voices, at the highest stage when everyone is listening. And for people who don’t have a voice, we need to speak up. We need to fight for future generations.”

Rapinoe has been the most visible spokeswoman for gender equality. She was named Sports Illustrated’s sportsperson of the year last year for her World Cup play and activism.

“We’re going to fight for equality since we’re the ones being discriminated against,” Rapinoe said. “It’s going to take everyone. It’s sort of a societal shift in the way we think about things. There needs to be a willingness to open things up, not only to go after the best person but to also build that foundation that you can give women those opportunities.”

Making history

Since the 1995 World Cup, no champion has gone on to win Olympic gold the next year. That group also includes the 1999 World Cup champion Americans, who lost in the 2000 Olympic final.

Why is it so difficult to win an Olympic gold medal the year after winning a World Cup?

“There’s a bit of an exhale after (a championship),” Rapinoe said. “It’s just difficult to win the Olympics anyway. There are so many games in such a short time. If you end the year badly, you probably have that extra revenge factor. If you win, you have to refocus quickly. But a lot of it is the increased attention on us and the demand on our time.”

Contact Rodney Page at rpage@tampabay.com. Follow @RodneyHomeTeam.

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