Road to gold will be harder than you think for USWNT

The USWNT will open its Olympic title defense against New Zealand. AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez

No women's soccer team has yet won Olympic gold the year after winning the World Cup. After Thursday's Olympic draw in Rio de Janeiro, the United States knows how it will begin the path to change that history. Here's a look at what we learned:

1. The United States got the draw it didn't want

Group of death? Don't be silly. Group of discomfort? Well, now that you mention it ...

The small size of the tournament meant there wasn't much drama surrounding the path the United States will need to follow. That begins in Group G against (in order) New Zealand, France and Colombia.

The United States was not going to be in the same group as either host Brazil or Germany, those three teams in the first pot, or effectively the top tier. It was going to draw either France or Sweden from the second tier because Germany couldn't draw a European opponent, and either China or New Zealand from the third tier because it couldn't draw CONCACAF rival Canada.

There wasn't going to be a group of death for a tournament in which two-thirds of the teams advance to the quarterfinals. But the U.S. still lost the proverbial flip of the coin.

Ranked No. 3 in the world, five spots ahead of Brazil, France is better and deeper than the team the United States beat 4-2 in the opening game of the 2012 tournament. Colombia isn't a medal contender and recently lost by a combined 10-0 margin in two friendlies against the United States, but it's a vastly more tested and accomplished program than either South Africa or Zimbabwe. Colombia didn't push the Americans in a World Cup knockout game a year ago, but it reached that round and didn't roll over once there.

And while the United States avoided the last team to beat it when it steered clear of China, which won Abby Wambach's farewell friendly this past December, it didn't win a prize with New Zealand. The Football Ferns tied the U.S. in Columbus, Ohio, as recently as 2013.

2. The United States will see the country

Unlike most of the Olympic program, the soccer tournament spreads out across the host country. That is how the United States and Canada came to play their epic 2012 semifinal at Manchester's Old Trafford, many miles from London's Wembley Stadium.

But to win gold this year, the U.S. will need to travel more miles in 17 days than it traveled in any previous Olympic tournament.

With Brazil guaranteed to begin in Rio de Janeiro, the United States knew it would play its first two games in either Sao Paulo or Belo Horizonte. There might have been some preference for the former, given it was where U.S. Soccer set up home base for the men's team during the 2014 World Cup. At the same time, sprawling Sao Paulo is one of the world's great logistical headaches. Brazil's sixth-largest city, Belo Horizonte isn't a village by any stretch, but it might afford the United States a calmer environment in which to begin.

The United States' place in Group G means it plays its final group game in Manaus, the Amazon rain forest city a not-insubstantial flight from Belo Horizonte (or anywhere else, for that matter).

Should the United States win the group, it would play a quarterfinal in Brasilia before potentially getting to set up shop in Rio de Janeiro for both the semifinal and final.

The good news in that daunting itinerary? The U.S. would still log fewer miles in Brazil than it did in crisscrossing Canada to win the World Cup a year ago.

3. We still don't know for sure the United States will be there

The national team qualified. It knows its schedule. But will it be in Brazil? That remains to be seen for a couple of reasons: labor issues and health concerns.

Most pressing at the moment appears to be the labor battle being contested on two fronts. In February, just before the start of the Olympic qualifying tournament, U.S. Soccer filed suit against the union representing the players in a collective bargaining dispute. Earlier this month, U.S. players Carli Lloyd, Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, Becky Sauerbrunn and Hope Solo, in turn, filed a complaint alleging wage discrimination by U.S. Soccer.

Neither issue has been resolved, nor is the timetable for resolution clear in either instance.

Sauerbrunn, one of the team's captains, reiterated recently that an Olympic boycott remained an option for the players. Speaking this past week before a game against Colombia, she also made clear that while only the five players are signed to the complaint, it speaks for the larger group.

"The five of us that signed that complaint are a group that worked very closely with our lawyers when it comes to the negotiations," Sauerbrunn said. "It's really important to us that we educate the players, and so they kind of know what's going on, as well, with the suit."

Given the support the players received from the likes of Hillary Clinton, some kind of labor disruption seems at least more likely than it was in relation to the artificial turf issue in last year's World Cup. This is the players' moment of leverage, and they seem willing to make use of it.

The other issue is the continuing health crisis in Brazil related to the Zika virus. Solo earlier this year said if the Olympics took place at that moment, she would stay home. The talk since then has generally been of the wait-and-see variety, but with news this week of definitive evidence linking the virus to birth defects, it is not as if concern is receding.

4. Don't expect to see the final roster soon

Thursday's draw came exactly a year after coach Jill Ellis named the U.S. roster for the World Cup. The difference in the calendar is the World Cup began in early June, not early August. And based on the Ellis' comments this past weekend before and after the second of two friendlies against Colombia, she isn't going to rush to name her 18-player roster for Brazil.

The U.S. team will next assemble as a group in late May, ahead of two friendlies against Japan early in June. Most National Women's Soccer League teams will have played seven games by then, and Ellis stressed those games are part of her evaluation process.

That said, the roster composition and distribution of minutes throughout the early part of this year, including Olympic qualifying and the competitive SheBelieves Cup, suggest that 14 or 15 roster spots are all but spoken for, barring injuries. The areas of greatest competition appear to be among those who will provide depth in the back line (Whitney Engen, Jaelene Hinkle and Emily Sonnett are among those vying for places), and in the middle of the field (Samantha Mewis and recent call-up Allie Long among those in contention there).

Ellis also reiterated she remains in communication with Rapinoe, the midfielder who tore her ACL during the team's ill-fated trip to Hawaii last year. It will be one day shy of eight months since that injury when the U.S. plays its first Olympic game.

5. This won't be a walkover

Presumably, few fans will expect the proceedings to be easy, but it's tempting to get lost in the memories of the rollicking World Cup final in Vancouver and hope for more of the same.

The main challengers appear to be Brazil, France and Germany, with Australia an intriguing outsider after it followed its strong World Cup by cruising past Japan in qualifying.

Not unlike the United States, Germany is going through a period of reconfiguration, which was underscored by news Thursday that knee injuries have forced Nadine Kessler to retire. Although those injuries kept her off the field in the World Cup, she joins a list of departures that includes Celia Sasic and Nadine Angerer. But by the end of the SheBelieves Cup, when it lost 2-1 to the U.S., Germany looked as competitive as ever. If Germany and the United States win their groups, they cannot meet until the final.

The much earlier challenge, of course, comes from France. The team played much of the most entertaining, fluid soccer in the SheBelieves Cup and yet scored exactly no goals for its trouble. It also played that tournament without key players, including midfielder Amandine Henry. If the United States lost to France and finished second in Group G, it could set up a potentially disastrous quarterfinal against Germany in which the loser would be out of the medal round. The flip side: if France finishes second, it would likely face Germany in a quarterfinal, just as it did a year ago in the World Cup.