World Cup triumph a distant memory as USWNT gears up for Rio Olympics

Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

As the U.S. women look to be the first Women's World Cup champion to win Olympic gold, they will do so with a very different roster. Paul Tenorio explains.

LAKE FOREST, Ill. – One year to the day after the U.S. women’s national team lifted the FIFA World Cup trophy, U.S. coach Jill Ellis stood on the sideline of a training field and reflected not on what was behind her but what stood ahead.

For some, the Americans’ dominant 5-2 win over Japan in the 2015 World Cup final feels like just a blink away. The memories of Carli Lloyd’s finish from midfield are still fresh. The dominant display in the final capped a furious U.S. crescendo through the tournament. There was hardly time to properly celebrate the win before it was shelved and set aside for a new goal – a shiny, gold one.

As a coach you don’t really have a rearview mirror. You’re just constantly looking at what’s ahead of you."

- Jill Ellis, USWNT coach

For Ellis and her players, it feels like a lifetime since that World Cup coronation. U.S. defender Kelley O’Hara said she remembers thinking about winning a gold medal during the trophy ceremony on the field in Vancouver last July.

“Just so much has happened between now and then,” Ellis said. “I’ve said this before, as a coach you don’t really have a rearview mirror. You’re just constantly looking at what’s ahead of you. For us it’s we’ve put that behind us a long time and now it’s focused on the Olympics.”

The Olympics begin in less than a month in Rio de Janeiro. The U.S. will face South Africa on Saturday at Soldier Field in Chicago as it ramps up preparations. The U.S. women are in search of an unprecedented fourth straight gold medal. Should the succeed, they would  be the first ever to claim a World Cup and an Olympic gold medal in back-to-back years. They will likely look far different from the team that downed Japan a year ago, however.

Sixteen of the 24 players named to the current roster were a part of that World Cup squad, including 13 field players. Retirements -- including world all-time leading goal-scorer Abby Wambach -- pregnancies and injuries have forced many of the changes. New faces among those called into camp include 22-year-old Lindsey Horan and 18-year-old Mallory Pugh.

“It’s a very different team, different personnel,” Ellis said. “I think we’ll probably be one of the most different rosters in terms of teams that were at the World Cup to the Olympics. ... With that, you get the [new] energy, different looks, different people, different personalities. For a coach it’s constantly [about] bringing a group together. Sometimes when there is turnover and there’s a mix up and there’s new personnel that’s kind of the fun of it is to bring all of that together and try to do it again with a different group.”

Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

After missing the WWC, Crystal Dunn is a shoo-in for the Olympics. (Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports)

Despite the turnover, the U.S. will lean on some important veterans, including Carli Lloyd, Hope Solo and Alex Morgan. Lloyd is training again after missing 10 weeks due to a sprained MCL. Ellis also called in midfielder Megan Rapinoe, who is hoping to rejoin the team after tearing her ACL in December.

Rapinoe won’t play against South Africa, but this camp gives Ellis a chance to see the midfielder up close before naming the final roster.

“Carli has definitely turned a corner,” Ellis said. “I think Megan’s knee has done very well, but part of when you’re coming back from an injury it’s not just the specific body part it’s also the complete training in terms of that. Sometimes it’s a pull here, a pull there in a different part.”

Ellis said she has been monitoring Rapinoe’s recovery from a distance via video and updates from Rapinoe’s Seattle Reign FC coaches, and she will be able to evaluate the midfielder up close this week.

“I’ve known what she’s been doing,” Ellis said. “Certainly getting minutes right now [is key], but I think the most important thing for me is she’s able to train unrestricted and we got to that point. And that’s important, that she can take contact and doesn’t have any restrictions. We got to that point a couple days ago and that was good to see.”

With a smaller roster, competition for the final few spots on the roster will be fierce. That may be one of the few things that hasn’t changed about this U.S. team over the last year. It’s long been a part of the spirit of the U.S. women.

“Every camp you’re fighting for a spot,” O’Hara said. “With this team, your job is never really safe. You’re always basically trying out and proving yourself and proving your worth. It’s always been that way. Maybe it’s a little tense because Rio is right around the corner, but it’s always pretty competitive in here.”

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Paul Tenorio is a reporter for FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter @PaulTenorio.