No Italian escape hatch as USWNT begins Olympic qualifying

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Saving Solo: Goalkeeper Hope Solo and the rest of the U.S. National Team open their Olympic qualifying campaign Friday night in Vanvouver, B.C. (AP Photo).

You can watch the U.S. women play the Dominican Republic tonight at 7:30 online at concacaf.com

It’s also available on television here.

And you can read an Associated Press preview from Sports Writer Joseph White here:

VANCOUVER, British Columbia (AP) — The U.S. women’s soccer team got some help Thursday in its bid to qualify for the London Olympics.

Well, actually, “The Help.”

Known to sing a rock ‘n’ roll lyric or two to her players to get a message across, coach Pia Sundhage instead quoted from the critically acclaimed movie when she addressed the team ahead of Friday’s opening game against the Dominican Republic. The Americans are in Vancouver for a tournament that will send two teams to London this summer.

“I’m a big fan of having a good start, so I want to surprise them,” Sundhage said. “Sometimes we take things for granted, so I was standing there and my first words — I didn’t sing — I look at them and I say: ‘You’re kind. You’re smart. You’re important.’ That’s exactly what they are.”

As the No. 1 ranked team in the world, it would seem the U.S. women wouldn’t need help of any kind to earn one of the two Olympic berths available in the eight-team CONCACAF tournament over the next 11 days. Getting to the World Cup or an Olympics was always a given: Their combined record was once 25-0-1 in qualifying for the sport’s two biggest events.

Until 2010, that is.

The Americans went to Cancun and blistered through the group phase of the World Cup qualifying tournament — winning three games by a combined score of 18-0 — before getting stunned by Mexico 2-1 in the semifinals. The U.S. had to win a backdoor playoff against Italy to earn a spot in Germany, a hurdle mostly forgotten as the team made a captivating run before losing to Japan in the World Cup final.

The format for this tournament is the same — except there’s no backdoor playoff. The two teams that win the semifinals go to London; everyone else stays home.

“There’s no Italy to back us up this year,” midfielder Megan Rapinoe said.

That makes every game crucial, even the group matches against teams like the Dominican Republic (ranked No. 88) and Guatemala (No. 85), followed by the eagerly awaited rematch against Mexico (No. 21). One slip-up and the Americans might end up with a do-or-die semifinal game against No. 7 Canada, which is expected to win the other group.

“There’s no better motivation than things not going as you planned,” forward Abby Wambach said. “And definitely the last qualification didn’t go as we planned. We thankfully had a second chance with playing the home-and-away series against Italy, and this time around we don’t have that chance. All of us know that. It’s not something that we even talk about.

“We’re one of the best teams in the world, and we just can’t show up for qualification and play and expect to win nowadays. Mexico, Canada, Costa Rica, they’re all really good teams, and they have a good chance of beating us on any given day.”

So where there used to be ho-hum, there’s now drama. While it shows that American domination isn’t what it used to be, it’s good for women’s soccer as a whole as the sport tries to expand its reach and command attention at times when there’s not a World Cup or Olympics going on.

Any tournament is going to have its idiosyncrasies, and this one is no exception. After all,
this is Canada in January, so the games are being played indoors at BC Place. Sundhage is trying to get the Americans to play a more possession-type game, which can be a little tricky when the ball is bouncing on artificial turf.

Defender Heather Mitts tweeted a photo of a bloody knee after Thursday’s practice with the comment: “meet the BC turf.”

Ironically, soccer could’ve been played outdoors when Vancouver hosted the Winter Olympics two years ago. The city that didn’t see a flake during the 2010 Winter Games has snow on the ground and freezing temperatures this week as it hosts a sport from the summer version.

There’s also the compact schedule. Three group matches in five days, then a short break before the all-important semifinals and the somewhat anticlimactic final. The U.S. has a deep, veteran team, so Sundhage is expected to spread the playing time around so that everyone is fresh for the one game that matters most.

“Right now we are in a wonderful situation, where you have the starting lineup, and as coaches we’ll look at the bench — ‘Wow. There are some good players,’” Sundhage said. “Regardless of who we pick for the starting lineup, we’ll have good players. Now the key is whether they play well together, so that’s something we need to look into with the games we have in front of us.”

Torrance’s Shannon Boxx has more to say in this video from U.S. Soccer:

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About Nick Green

South Bay-based Los Angeles News Group columnist and blogger Nick Green writes about soccer at the 100 Percent Soccer blog at www.insidesocal.com/soccer and craft beer at the Beer Goggles blog at www.insidesocal.com/beer. Cheers!