Once CONCACAF Olympic qualifying is decided on Friday, the only remaining federation left to play will be the Oceanic, where New Zealand, which represented the region at the World Cup, is expected to advance. While qualifying dates have yet to be officially announced, the games will likely take place in early April to round out the 12 teams that will compete for gold in the London Games.
For now, star New Zealand defender -- and Women's Professional Soccer fan favorite -- Ali Riley is spending her offseason in Los Angeles, keeping an eye on what's happening in Vancouver, British Columbia, where the United States, Canada, Mexico and Costa Rica will face off Friday night for two spots in the Olympics.
Riley is paying close attention to the U.S. squad for good reason. New Zealand will play a friendly versus the No. 1-ranked team on Feb.11 in Frisco, Texas. Riley will be going up against several of her fellow Stanford alums such as Kelley O'Hara and defender Rachel Buehler as well as WPS teammates such as forward Alex Morgan. "It will be a really big challenge for us, but it will be a good test to see where we are right now," Riley said when reached by phone earlier this week.
It'll be a new beginning for New Zealand. The squad hasn't been together since the World Cup, where it earned the country's first-ever point, and it'll be in a period of transition after coach John Herdman left to manage Canada.
"It's a little tricky," Riley said of the changes so close to Olympic qualifying, "but we are all really excited to see where it goes. We don't have too much to go on right now, but after [the game] in February, we'll really know what's ahead for us."
Of particular interest to Riley in the United States' games was her good friend O'Hara's debut at left back this past weekend. O'Hara, who as a forward won the 2009 Hermann Trophy as the year's top player when the pair played together at Stanford, is being tested out by U.S. coach Pia Sundhage at left back.
"I think she deserves to be on the field so I think it's awesome that she's gotten a chance to show her versatility," Riley said. "She's such a feisty attacker and she always works really hard on defense as well. I think it was a really good fit for her."
O'Hara notched three assists in the U.S.'s 13-0 rout of Guatemala and did well on defense. Riley, a two-time member of the WPS Best XI as an outside back, says she hasn't had to give her friend any advice on playing on the back line. "We haven't compared notes," she said with a laugh. "I love seeing her out there."
In the spring, many U.S. players, as well as Riley, are expected return to their club teams for the WPS season. It's been a tough offseason for the league, with court cases and U.S. Soccer's delayed sanctioning of the league as a Division 1 professional league. Riley, who will return to the defending champion Western New York Flash, admitted the situation has been tough on the players.
"It's really frustrating," she said. "I know all the girls share that same sentiment. It's so frustrating not knowing what you're future holds. It's our livelihood. It's not a hobby. That's why we work so hard to keep this a professional league. We want to be professionals and this be our job. This kind of situation [is] making it really hard to be like that. What's sad is while we want to help build it up so much, so much of it is out of our hands that a lot of people are considering going overseas."
While the league does appear on track for this upcoming season, it will be with just five teams after the league office disbanded magicJack and ended up in legal turmoil with owner Dan Borislow. In three full seasons, WPS has seen a flurry of teams come and go, with only two franchises remaining from the original seven that founded the league in 2007.
"No one knows what's going to happen. It's really hard every six months to not have a stable situation," Riley said. "Right now, we just all have our fingers crossed that we'll move ahead and have the five teams. Then 2013 will be better and the league will have more teams and the league will continue to grow."