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USWNT gears up for Olympic qualifying with an eye to Rio

With the 2015 Women's World Cup title under its belt, the U.S. national team is about to get to work on its next big prize: the 2016 Olympic gold medal. To get to Rio, the U.S. women must make it through to the Feb. 21 final of the 2016 CONCACAF Women's Olympic Qualifying Championship. 

The U.S. is looking to join qualifiers New Zealand, Brazil, Colombia, France, Germany, South Africa and Zimbabwe in Brazil, along with one other CONCACAF team. In addition to the two CONCACAF spots, three other berths are up for grabs, including two teams from Asia and a final European team, which will come out a four-team playoff in March between Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and the Netherlands.

For the U.S. women, the tournament kicks off at 8:30 p.m. ET Wednesday at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas. Captains Carli Lloyd and Becky Sauerbrunn will lead the U.S. against Costa Rica, the No. 34-ranked team according to FIFA. Two additional Group A matches for the U.S. will be against Mexico (Saturday, 2 p.m. ET) and Puerto Rico (Monday, 8:30 p.m.). 

The semifinal is set for Feb. 19 at BVAA Compass Stadium in Houston, but it's safe to say that the U.S. is aiming for a showdown in the final against Canada, FIFA's No. 11-ranked team in the world. This scenario would allow both the Americans and Canadians to earn an Olympic berth, as the top two finishers go to Brazil. It would also bring a nice dose of drama to the tournament. The U.S. won its third Women's World Cup in Vancouver on July 5, while Christine Sinclair and her vaunted Canadian side faltered in the quarterfinals under the pressure of hosting the big tournament. 

While the U.S. and Canada have faced off in closed-door games during training, a showdown at the Qualifying Championship will rekindle the drama of the 2012 Olympics in London. It was there that the U.S. slipped past Canada, 4-3, in a contentious semifinal match at Old Trafford that some have hailed as the greatest women's soccer match ever. The U.S. went on to win the 2012 gold medal, while Canada will be itching to right what it considers a wrongful set of officiating calls that led to its 2012 demise. 

In the next two weeks, Canada headlines Group B, along with Guatemala, Trinidad and Tobago, and Guyana, which will play doubleheaders at BBVA Compass Stadium in Houston on Thursday, Sunday and Tuesday.

The Americans have several issues to confront in the coming weeks as well, starting with who will actually play. U.S. coach Jill Ellis has brought a squad of 18 players to Texas that features seven players absent from the World Cup roster. Lloyd will be the featured player in the attack along with striker Alex Morgan. Sauerbrunn anchors a back line that is largely responsible for keeping the U.S. team in the hunt during the early games of the World Cup. The U.S. will also get veteran play out of goalkeeper Hope Solo. 

But excitement about the "new" U.S. women's national team hangs on the performances of newcomers Lindsey Horan and Crystal Dunn, who will be featured players in the midfield. Meanwhile, youngsters like defenders Emily Sonnett and Jaelene Hickle, midfielder Samantha Mewis, and forwards Mallory Pugh and Stephanie McCaffrey are also in line for playing time. The newcomers will look to help fill the void now that Lauren Holiday and Abby Wambach are retired, Megan Rapinoe is out rehabbing her surgically repaired ACL, and Sydney Leroux and Amy Rodriguez are pregnant. 

Beyond the potential U.S. vs. Canada showdown in the final Feb. 21, there are two other critical plot lines that need to be resolved before the Americans head to the Games.

The first is the major, mosquito-borne viral outbreak affecting much of the Americas.

The mosquito-borne Zika virus has caused a spike of microcephaly in Brazil, where the rate of that birth defect has caused the World Health Organization to declare an international health emergency as of Feb. 1. Meanwhile, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is advising pregnant women — or those considering becoming pregnant — to avoid travel to places with Zika outbreaks. 

U.S. Soccer has not responded yet to these warnings, as the U.S. has yet to qualify for the Aug. 3-20 Summer Games in Brazil. But the United States Olympic Committee has notified all U.S. sports federations that athletes who are concerned about contracting the Zika virus should opt out of competing in Brazil.

And then there's a lawsuit: The U.S. women will play in this qualifying tournament under a legal cloud as their union representative seeks a new collective bargaining agreement from U.S. Soccer. Despite apparent moves on both sides to negotiate a deal for the World Cup champs, the situation grew tense when U.S. Soccer filed a lawsuit in federal court Feb. 3. 

The federation is seeking clarification about the collective bargaining status after Richard Nichols, the executive director of the Women's National Team Players' Association, claimed to U.S. Soccer that after Feb. 24 the union would be free to walk away from the memorandum of understanding. This 2013 document is being disputed by the players union, which contends that the memorandum is unsigned and not a collective bargaining agreement.

Nichols, who was brought in by the players union to negotiate a new deal for the women's team players, is seeking to use the World Cup title and the 2016 Summer Games as leverage to win new terms for the players. U.S. Soccer maintains that the current deal with the women is valid through December 2016.

But first things first for the U.S. team: locking down wins to earn a spot in Rio.

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