Rio Olympics: Why the U.S. women will take gold

The Summer Olympics has featured women's soccer five times, and the USA has won four gold medals, only losing in 2000 on a golden goal to Norway. A year after they won the Women's World Cup in Canada, Jill Ellis' gals are favored to take home another gold medal. Here are three reasons why they'll win.

1. Great depth and versatility.

With 18 players on Olympic rosters -- both men and women -- compared to 23 players at World Cups, coaches must put a premium on versatility. Suspensions and non-serious injuries leave teams with very short benches and coaches must have players available to play multiple positions.

U.S. group-stage schedule:
Aug. 3: New Zealand, in Belo Horizonte, 6 p.m. ET, NBCSN, Soccer Specialty Channel, NBC Universo
Aug. 6: France, in Belo Horizonte, 4 p.m. ET NBCSN & Soccer Specialty Channel
Aug. 9: Colombia, in Manaus, 6 p.m. ET, NBCSN, Soccer Specialty Channel, NBC Universo

Even with the retirements of Abby Wambach and Lauren Holiday, among others, and Amy Rodriguez and Sydney Leroux Dwyer on maternity leave, Ellis has the deepest team a U.S. coach has ever assembled.

That depth has been tested this year as Megan Rapinoe (since December) and Carli Lloyd (April-July) have been sidelined by knee injuries and Tobin Heath and Morgan Brian bothered by minor hamstring injures.

That's all four starting midfielders returning from the Women's World Cup. (Holiday, the fifth starter, retired.) Any other team would be reeling, but Lindsey Horan and Allie Long have stepped in and made big contributions in central midfield. Brian is healthy again, which means Horan and Long, teammates on the Portland Thorns, are likely fighting for a starting job in their first trip to a major championship.

How and where Ellis uses Rapinoe, the USA's best taker of set pieces, remains to be seen. Rapinoe will likely not be a factor in the tournament until the third group game

2. Pugh polls well with her coach.

The poster child for change on the national team is UCLA-bound Mal Pugh, the youngest of the 11 Olympic debutants at 18 but already a likely starter after just seven months on the national team. She leads the USA in assists this year with seven and earned the respect of her coach for her smooth transition on and off the field.

“She does’t get rattled, she's very competitive, always has a big smile on her face," says Ellis. "She’s having fun. She’s enjoying it. So I think for her, I think probably if you were to ask her I think the hardest part of this was probably January, where she came in, didn’t know people, socially it was very different in terms of other players in there. She just didn’t know any of them. I think she’s settled in. I think her performances on the field and on the training ground have earned the respect of her peers, her teammates, and now she’s just one of the players on the team and players give her a hard time, but that’s a good thing because they give everyone a hard time, so they don’t treat her any differently."

3. Defense remains old reliable.

Hope Solo returns for her third Olympics, but she played behind entirely different back fours four years ago at the London Olympics (Kelly O'Hara, Christie Rampone, Rachel Buehler and Kelley O’Hara) and at the 2015 Women's World Cup (Ali Krieger, Becky Sauerbrunn, Julie Johnston and Meghan Klingenberg).

In Brazil, the USA will have its most experienced defense ever with O'Hara back in the starting lineup in place of Krieger at right back but otherwise unchanged from a year ago. The defense kept the USA in the Women's World Cup long enough for Lloyd and the rest of the attack to catch fire late in last's World Cup, and it has been outstanding all year with 13 shutouts in 15 games as the USA is 14-0-1 in 2016.

USA Roster:
GOALKEEPERS: Alyssa Naeher (Chicago Red Stars), Hope Solo (Seattle Reign).
DEFENDERS: Whitney Engen (Boston Breakers), Julie Johnston (Chicago Red Stars), Meghan Klingenberg (Portland Thorns), Ali Krieger (Washington Spirit), Kelley O'Hara (Sky Blue FC), Becky Sauerbrunn (FC Kansas City)
MIDFIELDERS: Morgan Brian (Houston Dash), Tobin Heath (Portland Thorns), Lindsey Horan (Portland Thorns), Carli Lloyd (Houston Dash), Allie Long (Portland Thorns), Megan Rapinoe (Seattle Reign).
FORWARDS: Crystal Dunn (Washington Spirit), Alex Morgan (Orlando Pride), Christen Press (Chicago Red Stars), Mallory Pugh (UCLA).
4 comments about "Rio Olympics: Why the U.S. women will take gold".
  1. stewart hayes, August 3, 2016 at 9:29 a.m.

    Will win, should or one of the top 4 teams with the best chance to take the gold? Not too impressed with Jill interviewing the players to assess their desire but much more impressed with the evolution of the team since Canada. It is by evolving and adding new talent that the team has the best chance of winning this tournament which it appears Jill Ellis has done.

  2. Ric Fonseca, August 3, 2016 at 2:07 p.m.

    Hey S. Hayes, so what if Coach Jill interviews the players? For heck's sake, a coach has to do what she/he has to do, 'cause I am sure you know that a coach must be beyond certain the state of mind plus the player's physical status before making a selection. Go USA Ladies!!!

  3. Bob Ashpole, August 3, 2016 at 4:50 p.m.

    With only 18 on the roster, there certainly isn't any room for mistakes in selections. I suspect that the interview process was more important for those who didn't make the 18 and didn't make the alternate list. The US depth is important to success and needs to be cultivated.

  4. Casey Bantle, August 5, 2016 at 3:56 p.m.

    Very impressive that Kelley O'Hara was able to simultaneously start at left and right back last Olympics!

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