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U.S. women's soccer team looks to become first to do the World Cup-Olympics double

The United States has won more Olympic matches, scored more goals and taken home more gold medals than any team in women’s soccer history. So the Americans don’t expect to sneak up on anybody while pursuing their fourth straight title in this summer’s tournament in Brazil.

“You’ve definitely got a massive target on your back,” U.S. Coach Jill Ellis said.

But Ellis’ team also has a target it will be aiming at when it opens play Wednesday, two days before the opening ceremony, against New Zealand (3 p.m. Pacific, NBCSN, NBC Universo).  If the U.S. can climb to the top of the podium this month, it would become the first country to win Olympic and World Cup titles in consecutive years.

“One of the things that I really looked into is why has a repeat never been done?” said Ellis, whose team has lost just once in its last 40 matches. “Is it a change of personnel? Is it complacency? Is it timing? To make sure that doesn’t happen I had a lot of individual meetings … and that was one of the questions I posed to players: Are you as hungry? Do you feel as focused?

“The resounding response was ‘yes.’ These players want to make history.”

Perhaps one reason no team has ever repeated is that the World Cup and Olympics are distinctly different tournaments. The first is more like a marathon and the second is a sprint.

Last summer’s World Cup in Canada lasted 29 days, a dozen days longer than Olympic competition, and the U.S. had as many as five days off between games. In Brazil, the U.S. will finish its three group-stage games in a week, beginning in Belo Horizonte, about 200 miles north of Rio, and finishing 1,800 miles away in steamy Manaus, on the edge of the Amazon.

Olympic rosters are more compact too, with only 18 players, five fewer than the World Cup. The competition field in Rio is also stronger than the one in Canada. Although Japan, the country the U.S. faced in the last Olympic gold-medal game as well as the last two World Cup finals,  did not qualify, seven of the 12 teams in the field are ranked among the top 10 in the world — including six that qualified for quarterfinals in the World Cup.

After New Zealand the top-ranked Americans will play third-ranked France and Colombia in group play with the top two finishers from each four-team group, plus the two best third-place teams, advancing to the quarterfinals.

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Fitness will also be a challenge for a U.S. team that landed in Brazil last week with four ailing starters. Carli Lloyd, the reigning world player of the year, missed most of the spring with a right knee sprain while midfielders Morgan Brian and Tobin Heath, both slowed by strained hamstrings, played just 25 minutes combined for club and country in July.

Still that’s better than Megan Rapinoe, who hasn’t played since October after tearing the ACL in her right knee.

“Managing them is ever more critical in this environment in terms of maybe rotating players, resting players,” Ellis said. “Gone are the days when you play 11 players for six games straight for 90 minutes.”

The United States will have a huge edge in terms of experience, though. Seven players on its roster have won at least one Olympic gold while 14 were on last summer’s World Cup team.

“If you’ve played in a world event, you’re used to the pressure cooker, certainly. And obviously the rigors of a tournament,” Ellis said.

Among those getting their first taste is 18-year-old forward Mallory Pugh, who made her U.S. debut in January and leads the team with seven assists this year. A UCLA recruit, Pugh is the second-youngest woman to make a U.S. Olympic soccer team behind Cindy Parlow, who was about three weeks younger in the 1996 Games.

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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