For Hope Solo and the United States Women’s National Team, another chance to make history has arrived.
The USWNT begins group play at the 2016 Olympic Games in Brazil on Wednesday with their sights set on Team USA’s fourth straight gold in Women’s Soccer and the organization’s fifth Olympic gold medal overall. But they aren’t just looking to add another gold to the collection—they’re chasing a one-of-a-kind accomplishment that has never been achieved before.
No team has ever won the FIFA World Cup and the Olympic gold medal in consecutive years, and the No. 1 ranked USWNT is looking to be the first. The pressure is on, and that isn’t lost on Hope and her teammates, but they’re bringing their best with them to Brazil and they’re ready for the challenge.
“We as a team acknowledge the pressure,” Hope said. “We know that the target is on our backs. We’ve been ranked number one for some time. We won last year’s World Cup. We won the last Olympics. It doesn’t make it easy. We don’t come into any tournament with an extreme amount of confidence or arrogance. We know that the job is going to be very difficult to repeat winning a gold medal. We know that the host country is an incredible team. We have to get through Germany. We have to get through France. There are a lot of great teams. So I think the way we deal with the pressure is knowing that it’s not going to be an easy tournament.”
Though the 2016 Olympic Games are officially set to take place Rio de Janeiro, the USWNT is yet to make it to the host city. Their opening match is in Belo Horizonte on Wednesday Aug. 3 at 6 p.m. ET against New Zealand, and the earliest they could play in Rio would be a semifinal match on Aug. 16. The expectation is that they’ll be there, but there is plenty of challenging competition to get through in the meantime and Hope knows that the American women cannot look past any team in this tournament.
“Like any athlete will say, you have to take it one game at a time. But I truly believe you don’t know what’s going to happen,” Hope said. “Each tournament I’ve played in, something bizarre has happened. What makes it so difficult is its unpredictable, with each game against each team. You don’t know what to expect—but what you can expect is the unexpected, and that’s what we’re preparing for.”
With their competition starting in Belo Horizonte—about a six-hour drive or an hour flight from Rio, the USWNT will also miss the Olympic opening ceremonies. That has become something of a custom for Hope, who is playing in her third Olympics and seeking her third gold, and some of her veteran teammates.
“I’m kind of used to it. I’ve been to several Olympics now and we’ve never been able to participate. But we make the most of it,” Hope said. “I brought my opening ceremony outfit and we put on the television and we pretend to march—it makes for great team camaraderie.”
Camaraderie will be important for the new-look American team. With Hope between the posts, she’ll act as a leader for a relatively young squad.
With 198 caps under her belt, No. 1 is one of few true veterans on the squad. In fact, only one player on the U.S. Olympic roster has more caps than Hope: captain Carli Lloyd at 224. Aside from Hope and Carli, only three other current USWNT players have hit the century mark in caps: Tobin Heath (119), forward Alex Morgan (112) and defender Becky Sauerbrunn (109).
“You had players at the end of their careers in the last World Cup,” coach Jill Ellis said. “But I think this group is hungry to make their mark as a new team.”
Of the 18 players on the roster, 11 will be playing in the Olympics for the first time, including offensive leaders Crystal Dunn and Mallory Pugh. Ellis is excited to see what the young crop of players can do.
“Getting younger players experience in this world event will help down the line,” Ellis said. “I think that’s part of what you have to do in this position is always plan to continue winning world championships. It’s a great infusion of new players – a slightly different style in terms of different players and pieces and putting it all together – and that’s actually been good. It’s refreshing, as a staff, to work with different faces and try to blend them.”
Dunn is second on the team with 10 goals in 2016, behind only Morgan (11 goals). While Dunn has been dominant at finding the back of the net, Pugh has been generous in lending a helping pass. In her debut year, the 18-year-old, one of the U.S. youngest Olympians, leads the squad with seven assists, and has added three goals.
“She doesn’t get rattled,” Ellis said of Pugh. “In January, she didn’t know anyone. Now, she’s just one of the players on the team.”
Pugh and Dunn are among a cast of up-and-coming young stars for the USWNT, and despite their youth, the American women have enjoyed great success in 2016, posting an undefeated record of 14-0-1.
Among those victories, the U.S. has beaten some of the world’s best competitors, including the second, third and fourth ranked teams in the World, Germany, France and England, respectively, in this year’s inaugural SheBelieves Cup back in March.
While the Road to Rio has been fruitful in victories, the big event is what it’s all about. And in Olympics past as well as at last year’s FIFA World Cup, Hope and Co. proved that they can win when it matters.
The USWNT has reached the medal stand in every Olympics since women’s soccer was added in 1996. That year, in Atlanta, the U.S. women walked away with gold after topping China 2-1 in the final.
They secured silver in Sydney at the 2000 Summer Olympics, losing to Norway in the gold medal match, but since then the USWNT has taken home the gold at the last three Olympic Games, beating Brazil at both the 2004 Olympics in Athens and the 2008 Games in Beijing. They then topped Japan in 2012 at the London Olympics.
In Hope’s first trip to the Olympics, the 2008 Games in Beijing, China, she posted three clean sheets, including a 1-0 win over Brazil in the gold-medal match.
Then in London at the 2012 Summer Olympics, No. 1 again registered three clean sheets and conceded just six goals over six games. In the gold-medal match, the US struck early with tallies from Lloyd in the eighth and 54th minute. Meanwhile Hope held off Japan, allowing just one goal in the 63rd minute to help her team capture another gold.
In addition to past success, the USWNT is riding a wave of recent success into Rio. Hope brings some major individual momentum into the Games as well, having posted shutouts No. 100 and 101 for her international career in recent matches.
The first Olympic challenge comes from the Kiwis. New Zealand is currently ranked 17th in the world, while the United States’ other Group G competitors, France and Colombia, are ranked third and 24th, respectively.
The opening match will be broadcast on NBC Sports Network, Wednesday at 6 p.m. ET. It’ll also stream live on the NBC Sports App and at NBCOlympics.com.