On Wednesday afternoon the US women's national team's Olympic squad will begin its quest for an unprecedented fifth gold medal at the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro and other venues across Brazil.
Millions will tune in both at home and abroad as the most successful team in North American soccer history tries to better their own program's brilliant past, a task that falls on the shoulders of the 18 women named by Jill Ellis (plus four alternates available in case of injury).
Here's what you should know about the USWNT and their latest gold-hunting expedition:
This team is (still) chasing history
The USWNT wrestled a rather large monkey off their collective back in Canada last summer when they marched to a world-record third Women's World Cup championship. It ended a painful 16-year cup drought dating back to the sensational 1999 title won on home soil, and allowed several veterans like Abby Wambach – international soccer's all-time leading scorer, man or woman – to ride into the sunset with satisfaction.
The Olympics – where the women's soccer tournament is a bigger deal than the men's, for several reasons – have been a far more fruitful competition for the USWNT: They've won four out of the five gold medals on offer since the sport debuted at Atlanta 1996. But as so many successful teams do, the US women seem to have found a fresh source of motivation despite all that domination.
In five chances, no team has ever won a Women's World Cup and Olympic gold in back-to-back years. That's the next target for a USWNT group that has grown accustomed to winning everything it takes part in, and it seems to have kept veteran stars like Carli Lloyd, Megan Rapinoe (both of whom are recent returnees from injury), Hope Solo and Alex Morgan focused and hungry.
“One of the things that I really looked into is, why has the repeat never been done? Is that a change in personnel? Is it complacency?” Ellis told reporters in an in-depth conference call after she announced her Olympic squad. “I actually had a lot of individual meetings in this last camp and that was one of the questions I posed to players: Are you as hungry? Do you feel as focused? And the resounding response was yes.
“The players want to make history, want to try and be the first team to go back to back.”
Who's standing in their way
The USWNT will likely be tested but not troubled by their group-stage opponents New Zealand, France and Colombia. A slick and skilled but unpredictable side, France are the toughest test on that list, and could well meet the US again in the knockout stages – which is where the real danger awaits for the defending champs.
Germany are a perennial menace. Australia continue to improve. Canada – who narrowly lost to the US in an epic 4-3, extra-time semifinal slugfest at Old Trafford four years ago – are more eager than ever to knock off their “big sister” border rivals on a big stage. But the trickiest adversary may be the host nation. Brazil are desperate to host a successful Olympics and will be particularly eager for glory in their favorite sport, so expect the home fans to give the USWNT a not-so-hospitable welcome.
The USWNT didn't rebuild – they reloaded
If you're one of the fans of the US men's national team who've expressed frustration at Jurgen Klinsmann's continued reliance on many of the same 30-something players who starred at the 2014 World Cup, the measured youth movement led by Ellis should be inspiring.
The US women's game has seen the rise of a new generation of driven, technically adept talents who've grown up in a more advanced youth development environment than their predecessors. Even with the USWNT the No. 1-ranked team in the world, players like Morgan Brian, Lindsey Horan and Crystal Dunn have made powerful cases for important roles, pushing the veterans and making the squad younger, faster and better-rounded.
“Once the World Cup was over, I had a call to our president, Sunil [Gulati],” Ellis said, “and I said that … if we are about winning world championships, we can't just have all our focus be on the Olympics. It has to be on looking at new players, looking at players to build for beyond. And he agreed. We still want to win a gold medal, we still want to be competitive this summer, and that's still a high, high priority. And I think we can do that. But we can also start to build players for the future.
“We've got the best young players out there right now.”
The program even has its own answer to Christian Pulisic: Mallory Pugh, who was brought into the USWNT at the tender age of 17 at the beginning of this year. But unlike the men's team, this teenage phenom isn't just on the roster: She's a regular.
A quick, aggressive attacker who can play out wide or up front, Pugh has started nine of the USWNT's 14 matches thus far this year, and appeared in all but one of them. Having drawn comparisons to none other than the legendary Mia Hamm, she's in the mix for a starting role in Brazil despite the wealth of veteran talent around her. Pugh is set to attend UCLA this fall, but nearly signed a pro contract with NWSL and US Soccer in January and could someday take a streamlined path to the pros, much like what MLS' Generation adidas once did for young male players.
When, where, how to watch
The USWNT play group-stage games in Belo Horizonte vs. New Zealand and France on Wednesday, Aug. 3 and Saturday, Aug. 6, respectively, then visit Manaus to face Colombia in the same Arena Amazonia that hosted the USMNT's 2-2 World Cup with Portugal in 2014. Eight teams will advance to the knockout stage, with quarterfinals on Aug. 12, semifinals on Aug. 16 and the gold-medal match set for Aug. 19 at Rio's Maracana Stadium.
Women's soccer will be included in the NBC/Universal network's 2,084 hours of Olympic coverage across 11 of its broadcast and cable channels, including NBC and Telemundo, and all 2016 Olympic events will be streamed live on NBCOlympics.com and the NBC Sports Live Extra app for authenticated pay TV subscribers.