CARSON -- There's no space for error when the U.S. national team heads into qualifying next week for the upcoming Olympics: CONCACAF has only two berths, and if fate brings a repeat of the region's Women's World Cup qualifiers, the Yanks aren't going to London.
The American women still win their share of international battles -- they're looking to win gold for the third straight Games -- but nothing's automatic anymore, and that includes qualifying. Mexico pulled off a semifinal upset in the CONCACAF qualifiers for last summer's World Cup in Germany, and the U.S. had to beat Italy in a playoff to make the field.
This time there's no backdoor. The semifinal winners are in. Everyone else is done.
“We're not looking past this tournament. I mean, you can't anymore. You saw what happened in the World Cup qualifying,” midfielder Shannon Boxx said Sunday following training at Home Depot Center, where U.S. coach Pia Sundhage will finalize her roster for the Jan. 19-20 CONCACAF event in Vancouver, British Columbia. “We're not taking anything for granted.
“Teams are closing the gap. You can't take any team for granted. It's one game. You see that in soccer, games can go any way they want. I think the biggest thing for us is just to focus on ourselves. I think we did that during the World Cup, and you could see how well we played.”
Canada and Mexico are the other chief contenders for the berths -- both are playing at Cal State Fullerton this week, Canada on Monday night and Mexico on Thursday and Saturday, both against the Los Alamitos Vikings -- with Costa Rica likely to claim the other semifinal berth. The U.S. opens Group B play Jan. 20 against the Dominican Republic, then faces Guatemala on Jan. 22 and Mexico on Jan. 24. The semifinals are the 27th.
“To be honest, don't know much about the other teams. You don't hear about them until you go to qualifying,” said Boxx (Redondo Beach/South Torrance HS), one of the holding midfielders in Sundhage's new 4-2-3-1 alignment. “We can't take them for granted, because we've never seen them play before. I think the Dominican Republic, OK, well, we better not takle them for granted because we have no idea. They could come out and have a lot of power behind them.”
That's doubtful, and not qualifying would be disastrous for the U.S., just like when it failed to reach the FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup in 2010. The game with Mexico is critical, because you'd like to avoid the Canadians, the probable Group A winners, in that semifinal.
The Americans can draw strength from their World Cup misery, captain Christie Rampone says. Their dramatic run to the title game ended with a penalty-kicks loss to Japan, which twice rallied from deficits, the second time in overtime.
“Definitely the disappointment of not winning it, I think, is still with us all, and we're going to bring that into this qualifying ...,” said Rampone, a central defender. “Past history, we haven't fared well in the World Cup, and I think the momentum going into Olympic qualifying and, hopefully, into the Olympics, we have that push from not doing as well as we wanted and leaving an empty feeling.
“We know now there's no playoff game [if we lose in the semifinals]. We were very close last year to not even qualifying [for the World Cup]. We want to make sure we bring it, we get better every game so we build to that semifinal.”
The work toward that began Saturday night.
“We know the extent of what this means, and I think that makes it more fun,” said Boxx, 34. “I think this team does really well under pressure. I think right now we're just excited to come out here, train hard. We're here for a couple days, and I think it will all kind of change pace when we get up there, the reality of 'Hey, we're here, we need to qualify.' ”
END OF THE LINE?: Rampone, the last of the celebrated 1999 World Cup titlists, turns 37 in June and says the Olympics likely will bring her international career to an end.
“It's another four-year commitment,” said the mother of two daughters, the youngest just 22 months old. “I think it's pretty much safe to say this will probably be my last international experience, and hopefully [Women's Professional Soccer, the U.S. league] stays around and I can play in that as long as I can go. I think less travel, more commitment to the family and still be able to play soccer.”
WORTH NOTING: The U.S. train at HDC through Saturday and depart next Monday for Vancouver. There are 29 players in camp, and there will be 20 on the qualifying roster. All 21 players from the Women's World Cup are on the list. ... The U.S. has won three of four Olympic gold medals (Atlanta 1996, Athens 2004, Beijing 2008) and silver at Sydney 2000. The Americans have finished third, third and second in three World Cups since 1999. ... Sundhage and Abby Wambach (Hermosa Beach) are in Zurich for Monday's FIFA Ballon d'Or awards gala. Wambach is a finalist for women's player of the year and Sundhage is up for women's coach of the year. ... UCLA senior forward Sydney Leroux is one of three collegians in camp, joined by Penn State midfielder Christine Nairn and Boston College midfielder Kristie Mewis, who just finished their junior seasons. Leroux is expected to be one of the top selections in Friday's Women's Professional Soccer draft. Mewis' younger sister Samantha was a freshman standout at UCLA. ... Other local players in camp are defender Whitney Engen (Rolling Hills Estates/Peninsula HS) and forwards Alex Morgan (Diamond Bar/Diamond Bar HS), Amy Rodriguez (Lake Forest/Santa Margarita Catholic HS and USC) and Lauren Cheney (UCLA).