The North Carolina Courage are well represented as the USWNT faces off against Haiti tonight in their first match of the CONCACAF Women’s Olympic Qualifying Tournament. New head coach Vlatko Andonovski called up all four Courage players who won the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup in France last summer - Abby Dahlkemper, Jessica McDonald, Samantha Mewis, and Crystal Dunn - and also elevated forward Lynn Williams to the tight 20-player roster. The fact that Williams made the roster at the expense of four former World Cup winners is a huge deal for her and signifies that Andonovski is bringing his NWSL coaching experience to the table when making Senior National Team decisions. For Courage fans across the country, tonight is an opportunity to see our players in action for the first time since October, when they won a dominant 4-0 victory over the Chicago Red Stars in the NWSL Championship.
There are a lot of questions that could be answered during this match and tournament. Most importantly, Andonovski’s roster still has Dunn listed as a defender. It’ll be interesting to see if she has played her way into a position that she doesn’t prefer or if the new coach will let her run with the forwards. Outside back is a brutally shallow position for the USWNT, so she might just be stuck there through the Olympics. I’m also watching to see how much play Williams and McDonald get. The Olympic roster gets cut down to just 18 players, and you have to think that the overabundance of forwards is going to be the main place that those two extra players will be culled from. Additionally, Alex Morgan is going to try to be back to play in the Olympics after the birth of her first child. I doubt that she will be on the squad come May, but these athletes are not normal people and if she wants a spot in the deciding camp she’s going to get it. That leaves the two Courage strikers fighting for spots that might not even be available when the plane takes off for Japan. It still amazes me that McDonald fought her way onto the USWNT after so many years of being overlooked, and Williams can finally breathe more easily after Jill Ellis walked away from the team. The last two cuts from this team are going to be brutal.
A brutal first tournament for the new head coach
Since the tournament first started in 2004, the United States has never failed to win outright. The competition in CONCACAF has never been much of a challenge for the best team in the world, but the tournament itself is set up to be a dangerous gauntlet. Two groups of four teams face off in a traditional group stage round robin competition where the top two teams head to the semifinal round. The United States is matched up against Haiti, Panama, and Costa Rica in Group A, and it should be a breeze to sweep the group. Group B is comprised of Canada, Mexico, Jamaica, and Saint Kitts and Nevis. Just making the tournament is a huge achievement for St. Kitts, but realistically the two seminalists will come from the other three options.
The only game that will matter for the USA is the semifinal match, and that’s where things get a bit scary. Just two teams qualify for the Olympics from CONCACAF, so the semifinal matches become de facto play-in matches. Both teams that make the championship game will already be in the Olympics, and there won’t even be a 3rd-place match because both of those teams will have already been eliminated. Playing against Jamaica or Mexico would be a pretty easy path for the USA, and the most likely scenario is that one of those two teams will be the runners up in Group B. The biggest threat to the defending World Cup champion missing the Olympics would be if Canada falters and ends up coming second in the group.
If you’d made such a prediction two years ago it would have been rightly laughed down as absurd. After climbing all the way to 4th in the world following their impressive performance at the 2015 World Cup, Canada saw a slow decline in performance from 2016-2018 before the bottom completely fell out after manager John Herdman left his post in 2018 to coach the men’s team. The tenure of replacement manager Kenneth Heiner-Møller has been rocky to say the least, and Canada plunged to 8th in the most recent rankings. Then, in a closed-door practice match for this tournament, the team drew with Haiti 1-1. Canada has been mostly silent about the performance, but Haiti couldn’t help but talk it up.
Ann gade ansanm GÒL #MIKERLINE nan pou peyi nou kont CANADA nan match amikal pou preparasyon dènye faz ELIMINATOIRES JO 2020 yo #Medamyo Pi Gwo Test! Pou monte PI WO NIVO #FHF2020 #kiteboullaWoule⚽ pic.twitter.com/S3sKXn8e1V— Fédération Haïtienne de Football (@fhfhaiti) January 21, 2020
In the tweet, you can see a bad turnover from Canada in the middle third, a few quick passes from the Haitian midfield, and then a complete disaster on defense before the Haitian attacker slots the ball home. If Canada loses to either Mexico or Jamaica, they could be fighting for their life in a knock-out game against the USWNT in the semifinals. That’s still a game that the United States should win, but it would be less of a guarantee than they might otherwise have.
How to Watch
After waiting until the last minute, FOX finally bought a bundle of rights for various tournaments over the next three years. The game against Haiti will kick off at 8:30 p.m. ET from BBVA Compass Stadium in Houston, TX. The game will be broadcast on FS2, as will the first match of the afternoon where Panama will face off against Costa Rica.
The USWNT will play against Panama on January 31st on FOX Soccer Plus, and again on February 3rd on FS1 against Costa Rica. The semifinal match will be on February 7th and the final on February 9th.