The last thing the U.S. women's soccer team needed heading into this month's Olympic qualifying tournament in Texas was distraction. Yet, in the run-up to Wednesday's opening game, it seems as if the reigning World Cup champions have been dealing with everything but soccer.
Last week, the women were sued by their federation, with U.S. Soccer arguing that it has a contract with the players that runs through the end of the year. The players' union says there is no collective bargaining agreement, only a 3-year-old memorandum of understanding that can be terminated at any time, giving the players the right to strike.
Then there's the Zika outbreak in Brazil, where the Summer Olympics will be played. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control has issued a travel advisory for women who may become pregnant, and the U.S. Olympic Committee this week advised athletes to take appropriate precautions.
And even before that the team was dealing with roster problems, having lost two World Cup players to injury and two to pregnancy.
With that as a backdrop, the U.S. kicks off group play Wednesday against Costa Rica in Frisco, Texas.
The U.S. will also take on Mexico and Puerto Rico in group play, with the top two teams advancing to the semifinals against the two survivors of Group B, made up of Canada, Guatemala, Trinidad and Tobago and Guyana.
The semifinal winners advance to the Olympics, where the U.S. can become the first team to win World Cup and Olympic titles in consecutive years. The U.S. has never lost in Olympic qualifying and is 43-1-1 against the three first-round opponents, having outscored them, 205-14.
This is a U.S. team in transition, though, with a roster that has been significantly revamped since last summer.
The U.S. began the World Cup with one of the tournament's oldest teams but four players have retired since then. The average age of the 20-player Olympic qualifying team is 24.
Seven women, including Mallory Pugh, at 17 the youngest player selected to a U.S. Olympic qualifying roster, will be playing in their first major international event at the senior level.
“I've looked up to all these players for so long and just being able to play with them now is such an honor,” said Pugh, a UCLA recruit from Colorado who scored in her first senior appearance last month.
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