SPORTS

U.S. women’s soccer team hopes to continue its Olympic dominance in Rio

United States coach Jillian Ellis waits for the start of the game against Trinidad and Tobago during their Semifinal of the 2016 CONCACAF Women's Olympic Qualifying at BBVA Compass Stadium on February 19, 2016 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)

United States coach Jillian Ellis waits for the start of the game against Trinidad and Tobago during their Semifinal of the 2016 CONCACAF Women's Olympic Qualifying at BBVA Compass Stadium on February 19, 2016 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)  (2016 Getty Images)

Few countries have enjoyed as long a reign as the United States women's national soccer team has over a quarter of a century – not even the fabulous Brazilian men's sides of yesteryear.

Since the first women's Olympic competition was added in 1996, they have defined the competition, reaching all five gold-medal matches and failing to take home the gold but once, and that was an extra-time loss to a superb Norway side at the 2000 Sydney games.

And it isn’t just the Olympics – since the first Women's World Cup in 1991, the Americans have won three of seven titles.

The U.S., in fact, has not finished less than third in any of those 12 competitions.

But there is one thing that the Americans hope to achieve in Rio that no team – not even the Red, White and Blue – has ever pulled off: winning the Women's World Cup and an Olympic gold in back-to-back years.

It has been attempted five times before and not even talented squads of Norway (at the 1996 Olympics), the U.S. (2000), Germany (2004 and 2008) or Japan (2012) could pull off the elusive double.

This American side – which is 14-0-1 in 2016 – just might be able to achieve it and stand atop the podium at Maracanã Stadium in Rio de Janeiro on Aug. 19. When U.S. players retire from international soccer, the team doesn't rebuild, it reloads, sometimes with even better players. And this team is only following tradition.

Head coach Jill Ellis is optimistic heading into Wednesday's opening match against New Zealand in Belo Horizonte.

"One of the things that I have looked into is why the repeat has never been done," she said. "Is it change of personnel? Is it complacency? Is there time [between competitions] to make sure it doesn't happen? One of the questions I posed the players: Are you as hungry? Do you feel as focused? The resounding response was, ‘Yes.’”

Ellis added, "The players want to make history, want to be the first team to go back-to-back. You had players at the end of their careers in the last World Cup. There was a sense of, ‘We've got to get this done sooner rather than later.’ This group is as hungry to prove themselves and to make their mark as a new team."

To put together her roster, Ellis and her staff had some challenges to overcome. First and foremost, the retirements of all-time great attacker Abby Wambach and midfielder Lauren Holiday. Then there was the loss of veteran defender Christie Rampone to injury.

On top of that, last year's roster at the WWC had 23 players, but teams can only use 18 players at the Olympics. So that puts a high value on versatility.

While the forwards and midfielders usually grab the headlines, a squad’s true strength comes from its team defense and backline.

A key number for the Americans is 3, as in the number of goals they allowed in seven matches at the 2015 Women's World Cup in Canada. One of those goals came in the team’s first game against Australia, and the other two in the final after the USA already had rolled to a 4-0 advantage in the opening 16 minutes in its 5-2 triumph over Japan.

Hope Solo will get another opportunity to show she is the best goalkeeper in the world if there are any breakdowns from the Fantastic Four backline of outside backs Meghan Klingenberg and Ali Krieger and center backs Becky Sauerbrunn and Julie Johnston. She did not have to put in for any overtime last summer, the defense was so overwhelming.

Ellis restructured the midfield, and Morgan Brian and Lindsey Horan have partnered well together in the middle. Newcomer Allie Long has demonstrated her versatility at attacking and playing defensive mid.

Depending on tactics and the opposition, the flank spots will be manned by Crystal Dunn, who won MVP honors and the scoring title in the National Women's Soccer League after she was left off last year's WWC team, Mallory Pugh and Christen Press.

All three of them can also play up front.

One of the big stories of the run-up to the Olympics has been Pugh, an 18-year-old who plays as if ice water flowed through her veins.

"She’s come in, held her own and she doesn’t get phased or rattled," Ellis said about the teen sensation. “She’s a quality player. It’s not just bringing her in to get experience, it’s bringing in a player [who] can help us down there and impact the game.”

Carli Lloyd – who, with the departure of Wambach, has become the USA's top money player, connecting for the winning goals in the last two Olympic gold-medal matches and a hat-trick in last year's WWC final – recently returned from a knee injury.

The biggest surprise and gamble was the selection of creative midfielder Megan Rapinoe, who had also been sidelined with a knee injury since December. Ellis felt she was worth the risk.

"Is Megan going to be able to come in and play 90 minutes every game? No," Ellis said. "She is going to bring experience and able to help us in certain moments, whether it’s starting or finishing … There [are] so many add-ons when selecting Megan that if she was truly ready, which we saw that she was, she’s a massive bonus for us going into Brazil.”

Striker Alex Morgan has also had injury problems, but they seem to be behind her, and that isn't good news for opposing goalkeepers.

As loaded as Team USA might seem, the players are not taking anything for granted.

"By no means is this tournament going to be easy – not with all the challenges we’ll face from our great opponents and the country itself," Solo said. "I believe in our young players’ skill. We all believe in their ability, but the fun part for me is that they will also have the opportunity to show the world more than skill alone. They will have to show the mental strength that it takes to rise to the occasion of an Olympic tournament."

Lloyd, vying for her third consecutive gold medal, feels the team's mixture is right for a rendezvous with history.

"We have a lot of young players," she said. "They have sparked the energy and have brought talent, but this is also mixed with veteran players. We know what to expect and what is needed to win the gold medal. We know it’s different. We can help the younger players deal with that.”

After playing New Zealand on Wednesday, the Americans meet France Aug. 6 and Colombia Aug. 9 in group play.