As the United States women’s team opens its quest for a fifth Olympic gold medal when they take on New Zealand Wednesday at 6:00 p.m. ET.
The team is fresh off a World Cup victory, and while the personnel is very similar to the squad that lifted the trophy, this team is still somehow very, very different. Arguably stronger.
World Cup hero Carli Lloyd was a question mark a few weeks ago, but is now fully healthy. Alex Morgan is leading the front line along with Christen Press. And Hope Solo remains in goal.
However, there are some new additions, and some exciting ones at that. Young Mallory Pugh, just 18 years old, looks like a star in the making, and will be joining Morgan and Press up front looking to dazzle in Rio. Although not technically new to the national team fold, midfielder Allie Long joins from the Portland Thorns and is looking at a starting spot if Morgan Brian’s hamstrings continue to cause her problems.
Gone are Abby Wambach, Lauren Holiday and Shannon Boxx who all retired, opening places for younger newcomers. Also not present are Christie Rampone and Heather O’Reilly, with neither officially retired but having still succumbed to Father Time.
It will be head coach Jill Ellis’s job to meld the old with the new, and with a solid warmup series in the books, Ellis hopes the opener against New Zealand will provide a launching pad for the gold medal favorites.
Veteran striker Amber Hearn is the target up front, with 45 goals for her country, the most ever. She will be especially hungry after being held goalless at the most recent World Cup. Also featuring for New Zealand will be Hannah Wilkinson, a former Tennessee Volunteer who already has a whopping 73 caps for the national team at just 24 years old. Both those attackers scored in a 4-1 win over South Africa in their final tuneup at the end of July (their official website made sure to point out the US only beat South Africa 1-0 most recently), and an upset against the United States would be the perfect statement to start a tournament.
The United States will have to be ready, and have to be together. It’s no surprise at all if Jill Ellis already has both boxes checked.