U.S. national team star Abby Wambach, left, gives teammate Sydney Leroux… (Bret Hartman / Associated…)
Lost amid the hoopla over the U.S. team's performance in the Women's World Cup last summer is the fact that the Americans almost didn't make it to the tournament after losing to Mexico in CONCACAF qualifying.
But U.S. Coach Pia Sundhage has not forgotten. And it's something she plans to remind her team of heading into the Olympic qualifier in Vancouver, Canada, that starts this week.
"I think we learned from that [World Cup] experience," Sundhage said. "It's our job to make sure that we look at the next game and not get carried away and talk too much about a semifinal or the final and even the Olympics in London."
The U.S. opens group play in the eight-team tournament Friday against the Dominican Republic, then meets Guatemala on Sunday ahead of Tuesday's rematch with Mexico. The event kicks off Thursday with Group A matches between Costa Rica and Cuba and between Canada and Haiti.
The top two teams in group play advance to the Jan. 27 semifinals with the winners there moving on not only to the tournament final Jan. 29, but to the London Olympics as well.
In the last four Olympics the U.S. women have reached the final each time, winning three gold medals.
Nineteen of the 20 women on Sundhage's roster also played for her in the 2011 World Cup in Germany, where the U.S. lost a dramatic final to Japan on penalty kicks. The exception is former UCLA standout Sydney Leroux, a 21-year-old forward and Vancouver native who played for Canada in the U-19 World Cup as a 14-year-old. Leroux's mother is Canadian but her dad is an American, so Leroux is eligible to play for the U.S. team.
Also new for the U.S. team since the World Cup is the 4-2-3-1 formation Sundhage plans to use at times in Vancouver. The Americans, ranked No. 1 in the world, have had great success with a straight 4-4-2, but their coach thinks a new offense will provide an extra challenge.
"Our job is make sure that the players are inspired so that they improve their game," she said. "You can't sit back and look at the World Cup and say, 'We did great.' Because then we will not qualify. Then we will not play good soccer and then we will not win."
Sundhage said Abby Wambach, who scored four times in the World Cup, will be key to the team's offense no matter how it lines up. But the Americans can also depend on a newly healthy Hope Solo in goal.
"I'm finally off all anti-inflammatory medicine. I'm not taking shots any more. No more even Aleve before training. No painkillers," said Solo, whose career almost ended with major shoulder surgery 16 months ago. "I know there's more in me because I didn't play my best soccer [in the World Cup]. And I'm hoping this Olympics — now that my shoulder has had more time to recover — will be my best soccer."
The tournament will be played indoors at recently renovated BC Place. Sundhage's players prepared for the stadium's slick surface by holding their last U.S. workout on an artificial field at the Home Depot Center last week.