The Road to Rio and the 2016 Olympic Games began with a win for Hope Solo and the United States Women’s National Team on Saturday in San Diego.
The reigning World Cup Champions began their 2016 campaign with a 5-0 shutout in a friendly against the Republic of Ireland at Qualcomm Stadium. The USWNT doesn’t officially begin Olympic qualifying until February, but the squad was happy to take a tune-up with the Irish at the end of their January Camp in Southern California, and the heroes on Saturday were strikingly similar to those that paved the way to World Cup gold in Canada this summer.
Carli Lloyd led the way offensively with a trio of goals to log her sixth career hat trick, while Hope and the American defense kept the Irish quiet throughout. Ireland managed just two shots—both on goal—and Hope erased both chances to record her 91st career clean sheet. Afterward Lloyd, who was playing her first official game as USWNT captain, spoke of the value of being tested this early on the Road to Rio.
“It was definitely a good test,” Lloyd said. “I think the fact that they did pack in it a little bit at times it was hard to kind of play through the central channels but overall I think it was a great test. It was a great test for some of the younger players to instill some confidence in them and I think we’re definitely ready for Olympics qualifying.”
Lloyd’s three goals came in just a 28-minute span to open the game. Forward Alex Morgan assisted on the first two goals of Lloyd’s hat trick. Then the USWNT captain paid Morgan back, sending a dime her way in the 45th minute, which Morgan deposited in the back of the net to give the Americans a 4-0 lead at the break.
While the American offense starred early, Hope wasn’t forced into action until 80 minutes into the afternoon. She made two critical stops on back-to-back plays to quell any hope for an Irish rally and preserve the shutout.
In addition to playing some of her stars in San Diego, USWNT head coach Jill Ellis gave as starting nod to several new faces, and sent in even more young talent as the match went on. Managing her roster cautiously — with several players limited or out of action with injuries — the coach made mass substitutions at halftime, which put the future of the program on display.
“I think evaluation is always part of coaching,” Ellis said the day before the game against Ireland. “Even going through a World Cup, you’re still getting to see players, so that evaluation never ceases. But for me, because of the turnover, that has to be a big part of this roster. It’s seeing players that we think can potentially grow in the program and then obviously will help us immediately.”
After Hope’s back-to-back stops in defense of the U.S. net, one of the country’s most promising young players, 17-year-old phenom Mallory Pugh, broke through for the game’s final tally. Eighty-three minutes into her first career cap, Pugh made a second run to the near post and forward Christen Press found Pugh for the running header. The captain of the American U-20 team beat Irish goal keeper Emma Byrne for her first international goal and ran into Press’ arms.
“There are a lot of fresh faces out there and it’s refreshing,” Lloyd said afterward. “This was a great time for the younger players to get some confidence.”
Young players like Pugh replaced mainstays like Abby Wambach, Lauren Holiday, Shannon Boxx and Lori Chalupny—but as Lloyd explained after the game, the American machine expects to succeed no matter who wears the jersey.
“It’s still the game of soccer, and it’s about finding channels and combining with people,” Lloyd said. “It shouldn’t really matter who is out on the field. Obviously everybody has different tendencies and different things that they like to do on the field. But at the end of the day, it’s basically about the system, the way we’re trying to play and trying to get into the attack.”
After a dominating performance over the Irish, the USWNT will take a breather before a grueling February schedule that will see them play five matches in 11 days from February 10-21 when they will seek to qualify for the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Brazil.
The Americans will be attempting to become the first team to win the World Cup and then the Olympic gold back-to-back. Hope and the Stars and Stripes begin qualifying with a Wednesday, Feb. 10 matchup at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas versus Costa Rica.