Imagine a team that demands of itself not only wins, but domination, style, constant improvement and regular renewal from within. Contemplate the concept of a squad so successful that it no longer measures itself solely by results against other teams, but with its own vision of what it could be when operating at its peak capacity.
But we're not talking about Brazil 1970, Real Madrid in the late '50s or even FC Barcelona 2008-12. This is a group grown and honed right here in the United States, wearing the US Soccer badge over their hearts. And this month they're eyeing a place among the all-time greats.
The US women's national team open their latest quest for Olympic gold on Wednesday evening as they meet New Zealand in Belo Horizonte, Brazil (6 pm ET; NBCSN, NBC Universo, NBC Olympic Soccer Channel). The USWNT are aiming for an unprecedented fifth gold-medal capture – they've won every Olympic women's soccer tournament ever played, save the 2000 edition when they lost to Norway in the final. They're also carrying the Women's World Cup title they won last summer, eager to become the first women's team ever to win World Cup glory and Olympic gold in back-to-back years.
“The players want to make history, want to try and be the first team to go back-to-back,” head coach Jill Ellis told reporters last month.
“The expectation never changes,” she added. “The expectation is always to be on the podium.”
Ellis' team traveled to Canada last summer burdened by major questions and doubts. They'd opened 2015 with a troubling loss to France, stumbled through a few more unimpressive results in the run-up to the World Cup and seemed unable to fit their disparate talents into a cohesive starting XI. But everything clicked as they entered the WWC's knockout stage and by the time they reached the cup final in Vancouver, they were a juggernaut, smashing defending champions Japan 5-2 on the back of Carli Lloyd's first-half hat trick.
Basically, they haven't missed a beat since that day. The USWNT are 14-0-1 in 2016, consolidating their place atop women's world soccer with a judiciously executed youth movement and an admirable commitment to intelligent, aggressive, possession-based play.
From center backs Becky Sauerbrunn and Julie Johnston all the way up to Alex Morgan, who's grown into a well-rounded spearhead atop a modern 4-3-3 shape, everyone in the starting XI is comfortable on the ball and committed to playing the opposition off the park. Notably, the youngest contributors are some of the most technical, with the likes of Lindsey Horan and Morgan Brian markedly raising the collective soccer IQ over the past year and freeing Lloyd to rove freely and wreak havoc in the attacking third.
“What you saw in 2015 was, we weren't clicking. Our defending was quite good, but we kind of had to rely on our defending just because we weren't really generating a lot of attack,” Sauerbrunn told MLSsoccer.com shortly before the USWNT flew to Brazil last week. “What we've worked on since then is the attack, and starting from [goalkeeper] Hope [Solo] playing the ball out to me or Julie and what we do with it. So we've been given the responsibility to be a bit more involved in the attack, and getting our players that are ahead of us in better spots and spaces.
“So I think you'll see an evolution of sophistication when it comes to how we are getting into the final third. Instead of just lumping it forward over the back line – which we're still going to do sometimes – how else can we get into that final third? So you see players on the outside that are great at taking [defenders] on 1v1, but they're also combining really well. Alex and Carli's relationship up top ever since Carli's gotten back from injury has been really good – you're going to see them playing off each other, up, back and through. So I think it's just all the different ways that we can get into the final third is way more advanced than it was in 2015.”
Even rivals have had to concede that a team once known for bludgeoning adversaries into submission with strength, athleticism and direct play has taken a startling step forward in its evolution.
“This is the step we wanted to take from the World Cup to now, to the Olympics,” said Ellis. “In the World Cup, when we were attacking, it was in ones and twos. So at the beginning of this year, we said, 'we've got to get everybody involved.' So we spent a lot of time working on our organized attack, we spent a lot of time on our transitions. … We just tried to look at more of a global attack instead of just an individual trying to get players forward.”
With speed, smarts and depth as well as their traditional resilient mentality, the USWNT is capable of winning in a variety of ways.
A menacing wing corps boasts the fleet-footed finishing of Crystal Dunn, the impudent dribbling wizardry of Tobin Heath and the relentless drive of 18-year-old wunderkind Mallory Pugh, who's widely expected to be this tournament's breakout star. Christen Press is one of the world's best strikers yet isn't even a regular starter on this team, while Meghan Klingenberg, Kelley O'Hara and Ali Krieger give Ellis three strong options – and tough choices – for the fullback slots.
It all adds up to clear favorite status for Olympic gold, though the march to the final at Rio de Janeiro's Maracana Stadium won't be easy by any stretch. With the soccer tournament held at venues across vast Brazil, the USWNT will have to manage the group stage carefully, especially with their third match, vs. Colombia, taking place in the Amazonian heat of Manaus.
The host nation is eager to make a breakthrough in this event, and old rivals like Canada, Germany and France lie in wait with scores to settle. The US are already more or less shorthanded, for the first few games at least, due to veteran attacker Megan Rapinoe's battles with nagging injuries as she returns from a serious knee injury sustained late last year – her inclusion in the 18-player roster was a calculated gamble by Ellis that may yet fizzle.
But the USWNT see no obstacle or excuse big enough to bar them from their goals: Not just another gold rush, but dynasty status, and a climb into the pantheon of all-time greats. Their journey down that path figures to be must-see TV for all of us.