For the United States Women’s National Team (USWNT), the Road to Rio is technically just getting started.
The team will not compete in Rio unless it makes it to the at least the semifinals of the 2016 Olympics.
To get there, though, the team must first make it out of the group play stage of the tournament, which begins for the USWNT at Mineirão in Belo Horizonte on August 3 when they take on the New Zealand Women’s National Team (NZWNT).
Wednesday’s group play match will be the two teams’ first meeting since the USWNT defeated New Zealand 4-0 in an international friendly played in St. Louis, Missouri on April 4, 2015.
The USWNT comes into the Olympics as the favorite to win gold after winning the 2015 Women’s World Cup and the past three Olympic gold medals. However, no team has ever won back-to-back World Cups and Olympic gold and with the number of changes the team has undergone since the World Cup, that will be no small feat even for the top-ranked team in the world.
However, the USWNT does have co-captain Carli Lloyd back with it after she suffered a Grade 1 MCL sprain back in April. Lloyd has a history of coming up big in major tournaments, scoring the game-winning goals in the 2015 World Cup, 2008 Olympic final and the 2012 Olympic final.
The team may be without veteran midfielder Megan Rapinoe though, at least for the match against New Zealand. It was reported on Tuesday that she had just had her first full training session with the USWNT since tearing her ACL back in December and suffering a calf injury last month. Rapinoe previously missed the 2008 Olympics because of a torn ACL, but she was a member of the squad that won gold in 2012.
Seventeenth-ranked New Zealand comes into the Olympics after a disappointing showing at the World Cup. The Football Ferns were eliminated in the group play stage after failing to win a match. Instead, the national teams of Canada and China moved into the elimination rounds, and the Ferns went home sooner than they wanted.
However, the NZWNT’s Olympic record is not much better. The team failed to qualify for the Olympics until 2008 but was eliminated in the group stage. The Football Ferns once again qualified for the summer games in 2012 and made it out of the group stage only to lose 2-0 to the USWNT in the quarterfinals.
Despite having the advantage over New Zealand, the USWNT cannot count them out. The Football Ferns squad boasts a couple of NWSL players, captain Abby Erceg and Katie Bowen, who will be familiar with the USWNT style of play. Hannah Wilkinson, the scorer of one of the NZWNT’s two World Cup goals, is also an attacking threat for the Ferns, and the U.S. defense could have its hands full with her.
The USWNT takes on New Zealand on August 3 at 6 p.m. EST. The match will be aired on NBC Sports Network (NBCSN) and NBC Universo and will be streamed online at nbcolympics.com.
United States Women’s National Team Roster by Position
GOALKEEPERS (2): Alyssa Naeher (Chicago Red Stars), Hope Solo (Seattle Reign FC)
DEFENDERS (6): Whitney Engen (Boston Breakers), Julie Johnston (Chicago Red Stars), Meghan Klingenberg (Portland Thorns FC), Ali Krieger (Washington Spirit), Kelley O’Hara (Sky Blue FC), Becky Sauerbrunn (FC Kansas City)
MIDFIELDERS (6): Morgan Brian (Houston Dash), Tobin Heath (Portland Thorns FC), Lindsey Horan (Portland Thorns FC), Carli Lloyd (Houston Dash), Allie Long (Portland Thorns FC), Megan Rapinoe (Seattle Reign FC)
FORWARDS (4): Crystal Dunn (Washington Spirit), Alex Morgan (Orlando Pride), Christen Press (Chicago Red Stars), Mallory Pugh (Real Colorado)
ALTERNATES (4): Ashlyn Harris (Orlando Pride), Samantha Mewis (Western New York Flash), Heather O’Reilly (FC Kansas City), Emily Sonnett (Portland Thorns FC)
HEAD COACH: Jill Ellis
New Zealand Women’s National Team by Position
GOALKEEPERS (2): Erin Nayler (Norwest United), Rebecca Rolls (Three Kings United)
DEFENDERS (6): Abby Erceg (C; Western New York Flash), Anna Green (Mallbackens), Meikayla Moore (Cashmere Technical), Ria Percival (FC Basel), Ali Riley (FC Rsengård), Rebecca Stott (Claudelands Rovers)
MIDFIELDERS (5): Katie Bowen (FC Kansas City), Katie Duncan (FC Zürich), Betsy Hassett (Werder Bremen), Annalie Longo (Cashmere Technical), Kirsty Yallop (Mallbackens)
FORWARDS (5): Sarah Gregorius (Speranza FC Osaka-Takatsuki), Amber Hearn (USV Jena), Jasmine Pereira (Three Kings United), Rosie White (Liverpool), Hannah Wilkinson (University of Tennessee)
HEAD COACH: Tony Readings