- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 2, 2016

It was a month ago, during a training camp in Chicago, that U.S. national team coach Jill Ellis met with her players for individual meetings. Speaking to them one year to the week after winning the Women’s World Cup, she posed some simple questions.

“Are you as hungry?”

“Do you feel as focused?”

The resounding response? “Yes.”

Per the quadrennial scheduling of major women’s tournaments, the Olympic Games always are held the summer after a World Cup. Since women’s soccer was added for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, no team has completed the feat of winning the major tournaments in consecutive summers.

“One of the things I’ve really looked into is, ‘Why has the repeat never been done?’ Is it a change of personnel? Is it complacency?” Ellis said. “I think the players want to make history — they want to be the first team to go back-to-back.”

Although the Olympic opening ceremony will be held in Rio de Janeiro on Friday, the U.S. squad opens its bid for a fourth-straight gold medal against New Zealand on Wednesday in Belo Horizonte, Brazil.

The top-ranked Americans also will face No. 3 France and Colombia in the group stage en route to the eight-team knockout round, which culminates with the gold medal match at the legendary Maracana Stadium on Aug. 19.

“I think the challenge of winning an Olympics after a World Cup is less superstitious and more just difficult,” U.S. forward Christen Press said. “The turnaround time is so short, and the World Cup is such a big football accomplishment. To regroup, reorganize and sort of reinvent the team for the Olympics is just difficult in the time frame.”

While history may not be on the Americans’ side, momentum is: The U.S. is 14-0-1 in 2016, with 52 goals scored and four allowed.

Several national team stalwarts — including all-time leading scorer Abby Wambach and midfield conduit Lauren Holiday — retired after winning the World Cup. But 10 of the 11 starters from the World Cup final are on Ellis’ 18-player squad, including FIFA World Player of the Year winner Carli Lloyd, who famously scored a hat trick in the first 16 minutes of the clinching victory over Japan.

“This team has an uncanny obsession with winning,” midfielder Megan Rapinoe said. “This team just thrives on that competition within the squad. There’s nothing more insane than an intrasquad scrimmage between two sets of players on the national team. That just prepares us as well as we can to take on anyone.”

In addition to Lloyd, the team remains anchored by the high-profile likes of goalkeeper Hope Solo, defender Becky Sauerbrunn and forward Alex Morgan.

Ellis also has given the team an injection of youth, with 18-year-old winger Mallory Pugh and 24-year-old Washington Spirit forward Crystal Dunn among four newcomers who missed out on the World Cup roster.

“The group of girls that we have this year on the team for the first time has just been amazing,” Press said. “They’re so positive, they’re so open-minded and open-hearted. They’ve really done a great job of becoming a part of this team and embracing what we are but bringing their own individual qualities to the table.”

This tournament comes during a key period for the growth of women’s soccer stateside. The World Cup final last summer was the most-watched soccer game in U.S. history, and the women’s national team has seized that popularity to easily outdraw the men in home friendly matches played over the past year.

In March, five players filed a complaint on behalf of the women’s national team with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that accused U.S. Soccer of wage discrimination. As that larger battle looms, the players understand that following a World Cup win with Olympic gold can only strengthen their bid for more visibility and respect going forward.

“We understand the historical implications of all of this, and that’s special to us,” Rapinoe said. “We want to be considered one of the best teams ever, if not the best team. We want to be dominant, we want to keep growing as players and continue evolving our sport — and leave it in a better place than where we found it.”

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