January 19, 2012
by Charles Cuttone
FIRST THINGS FIRST
U.S. Women begin Olympic quest this weekend
For the U.S. Women's National Team, the goal might be Gold, but first they have to navigate the road to this summerís Olympic Games in London. And that road begins and ends in Vancouver, BC, starting Friday (Jan. 20).
|After an unexpected stumble in last yearís Womenís World Cup qualifying tournament, Heather OíReilly and the U.S. WNT are taking nothing for granted when Olympic qualifying opens on Friday.
Linda Cuttone/Sports Vue Images
"Everybody is chomping at the bit to get Gold, but we have to take care of qualifying first," said midfielder Heather O'Reilly. "What happened at World Cup qualifying is definitely not too far from our consciousness, cause we know that soccer is a funny game and we have to be ready for every opponent in this qualifier, because qualifiers aren't as easy as they used to be, and there are a lot of good teams in our region now, so they are taking it very seriously."
What happened little more than a year ago on the road to the 2011 World Cup, is the U.S. nearly failed to qualify, not making it to the CONCACAF finals after losing to Mexico, and needing a two-game playoff series against Italy to get into the tournament.
The U.S. opens qualifying on Friday night in Vancouver against the Dominican Republic (10:30 pm ET), a team they have never played before. The road to London, however will likely lead through the other big two teams in CONCACAF, Mexico and Canada. Mexico is in the USA's group, and will be the final opponent in the opening round play after a game against Guatemala. Canada is in the other group, and despite their meltdown at least year's World Cup, is still the favorite team on that side of the bracket.
"Obviously, losing to them in (World Cup) qualifiers in Mexico was a big learning experience for us," said O'Reilly who, despite just having turned 27, is one of the most experienced players on the U.S. team.
"It proves that teams all over are improving, but it also proves that we can't get by anymore without playing great soccer, and we didn't play great soccer in that game and we definitely paid the price. I think this year, with Mexico being in our group, we are going to take a very business-like approach and just focus on what we've been doing and hopefully get the result we want.
"We've started to discuss what we want to accomplish this year. We are definitely not looking past qualifiers. That's the realistic outlook, is that hopefully we will qualify and make a run for Gold. We all know what we need individually to do to win it this year, and collectively we need to do better as well. This is a big year for this group and this core of individuals. We feel like we have a lot to prove."
The team in Vancouver is almost exactly the same as the one that was part of the thrilling run to the World Cup final last year, the only exception being the addition of former UCLA forward Sydney Leroux, who is actually a native of Vancouver.
That has players on the team excited about the possibility of making a similar run for a gold medal, while the eyes of the entire country is on them.
"I think that we felt so much momentum, and itís a great thing that the Olympics are just around the corner," said O'Reilly.
"Americans kind of have a short memory span. It's good that itís such a quick turnaround for another big tournament. That being said, the Olympics have so many events involved in them, there is so much focus on individual sports, like swimming and track and field, so I think it will be interesting to see if the American general sports fan grabs hold of what we did last summer and brings it into this summer."
When last year's World Cup started, the Americansí participation was hardly noticed. It wasn't until an epic comeback win over Brazil that interest in the team began to swell. That's not lost on the players.
"It's our job to consistently remind them what we are about and that we are looking for Gold, because we just missed out last summer. Once the Olympics start, I think the general sports fan will definitely going to remember and will definitely be behind us."
That will have to start with getting past this next week.