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U.S. women's soccer team and Coach Jill Ellis take first step on road to the Olympics on Saturday

U.S. women's soccer team and Coach Jill Ellis take first step on road to the Olympics on Saturday
United States women national soccer team head coach Jill Ellis arrives for the FIFA Ballon d'Or Galaon Jan. 11. (Philipp Schmidli / Getty Images)

SAN DIEGO — Jill Ellis, the newly minted women's world coach of the year, says she isn't superstitious. Which is too bad because she has a lot of omens working in her favor heading into the U.S. women team's first game of the year, an exhibition Saturday with Ireland at Qualcomm Stadium.

It was at Qualcomm where Ellis coached her first game after replacing Tom Sermanni 21 months ago. And Ireland was the first opponent her U.S. team defeated on the three-game warmup tour ahead of last summer's World Cup triumph.

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"I don't remember those things," Ellis said Friday.

Maybe that's because she's more interested in making history than reliving it. So six months after guiding the U.S. to its first world championship in 16 years, Ellis called her team into training camp earlier this month with an even bigger goal: an Olympic title that would make her team the first to win a World Cup and an Olympic gold medal in consecutive years.

"That's kind of the next challenge," said U.S. star Carli Lloyd, the FIFA women's player of the year. "We're ready for that."

It's a goal the U.S. will begin chasing in earnest Saturday, when a crowd of more than 20,000 is expected for the team's only tuneup ahead of next month's CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament, the first step on the road to the Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro. Ellis begins that journey with a team in transition, having lost seven players from last summer's World Cup roster.

Four women, including former world player of the year Abby Wambach, retired. Two, midfielder Megan Rapinoe and defender Christie Rampone, are injured. And forward Amy Rodriguez is pregnant with her second child. That leaves several roster spots up for grabs.

"This has been a really important evaluation camp," Ellis said. "And [Saturday's] game will be a big part of that."

Especially for newcomers Lindsey Horan and Crystal Dunn. Horan, 21, is back after four years in France and could tighten her grip on a spot in the midfield Saturday, as could Dunn, 23, the reigning MVP in the National Women's Soccer League and the last player cut ahead of last summer's tournament.

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