For a few minutes, it was about the soccer again.
On Thursday morning at the Olympic soccer tournament draw in Rio de Janeiro, the world champion U.S. women’s national team was placed into a group with France, Colombia and New Zealand. But from the moment the last ball was pulled until the first one is kicked this August—or until a resolution is reached—the discussion will return to whether its dreams of a fourth consecutive gold medal are more likely to be derailed by its opponents or by a labor dispute with the U.S. Soccer Federation.
Considering the juggernaut the top-ranked U.S. women have been over the past year-plus, the latter seems like the more formidable obstacle.
Several women’s national team players have filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission claiming discrimination over pay and working conditions. Last weekend, U.S. defender Becky Sauerbrunn told ESPN that a boycott of this summer’s tournament in Brazil is “on the table.”
She said, “We are reserving every right to do so. We’re leaving every avenue open. If nothing has changed—we don’t feel real progress has been made—then it’s a conversation we’re going to have.”
If they see that progress and/or decide to play, the Americans will be prohibitive favorites to become the first team to do the Women’s World Cup-Olympic double.
The last time the U.S. won the World Cup (1999), it fell the following year to Norway in the gold medal game in Sydney. The American women have won the other four Olympic tournaments contested.
Coach Jill Ellis’s team hasn’t missed a beat following the retirement of the likes of Abby Wambach, Shannon Boxx and Lauren Holiday, the knee injury to Megan Rapinoe and the pregnancies of Sydney Leroux and Amy Rodriguez. The depth of the U.S. talent pool has been on display as newcomers like Crystal Dunn, Mallory Pugh and Lindsey Horan have impressed. In 2016, the U.S. is 11-0-0 and has outscored its opponents by a 42-1 margin. Since the start of 2015, it’s 26-1-3. Against its three first-round foes, it's a combined 30-1-3 all-time. The loss to New Zealand came back in 1987.
The women’s Olympic competition comprises only 12 teams—half the size of the World Cup—and sends eight to the quarterfinals following the group stage. There’s significant margin for error during the first three games, not that the U.S. is likely to need it. It was separated before the draw from the other two top seeds, host Brazil and Germany (which learned Thursday of the retirement of 2014 world player of the Nadine Kessler).
And the other two medalists from last summer’s World Cup won’t even be in Brazil. Runner-up Japan stumbled in the Asian qualifiers and bronze medalist England isn't eligible because the United Kingdom’s constituent countries don’t compete separately at the Olympics.
The knockout-round bracket pits the Group G winner, likely to be the U.S., against a third-place finisher in the quarterfinal. A meeting with the Group E winner, probably Brazil or Sweden, then awaits in a Rio de Janeiro semifinal.
If the tournament unfolds as expected, that means the U.S. wouldn't have to face Germany (or a rematch with France) until the gold medal game. If the Americans slip, however, and finish second in their group, they would face the Group F winner in the quarterfinals in São Paulo. Neither the U.S. nor Group F favorite Germany wants to see that, meaning Ellis and Co. won't consider easing off the gas pedal in the first round.
Here’s a look at the groups and the U.S. schedule. The gold medal final is August 19 at the Estádio do Maracanã.
New Zealand (August 3 in Belo Horizonte)
FIFA Ranking: 16
Olympic History: Third appearance
Best showing: 2012 quarterfinals
U.S. Record: 10-1-1
The U.S. actually suffered a rare home draw in its last meeting with New Zealand. The teams tied, 1-1, in Columbus three years ago. The Football Ferns, who were eliminated from the group stage at the Women’s World Cup with a 0-1-2 mark, are captained by Western New York Flash defender Abby Erceg.
France (August 6 in Belo Horizonte)
FIFA Ranking: 3
Olympic History: Second appearance
Best showing: 2012 fourth place
U.S. Record: 15-0-2
Les Bleues don’t have much major championship pedigree but would have been considered the toughest potential first-round foe heading into the draw thanks to a talented roster featuring the likes of Louisa Nécib, Marie-Laure Delie, Eugenie Le Sommer, Amandine Henry and Camille Abily. They were unfortunate to meet Germany in last year’s Women’s World Cup quarterfinals and held out against the U.S. for 90 minutes in March's SheBelieves Cup before falling to a stoppage-time goal from Alex Morgan.
Colombia (August 9 in Manaus)
FIFA Ranking: 24
Olympic History: Second appearance
Best showing: 2012 group stage
U.S. Record: 5-0-0
The Americans demonstrated their superiority over Colombia this month with 7-0 and 3-0 victories. But the 2014 South American championship runner-up proved to be a bit tougher at last year’s World Cup and may challenge New Zealand for third place and a potential quarterfinal berth.