U.S. Women's National Team
Solo, Press, and Johnston Eager to Face South Africa
July 08, 2016
CHICAGO—Heading into the final stages of preparation for next month’s Olympic games, the United States women’s national team is on a roll.
After breezing through qualifying in February—topped off with a 2-0 win over CONCACAF rivals Canada—the U.S. beat England, France, and Germany in March’s SheBelieves Cup. The team then notched two wins over Colombia in April before picking up another victory last month over 2015 World Cup finalist Japan.
Before heading to Rio, the Yanks will play two more friendlies, the first coming on Saturday (1pm ET, Fox Sports 1) against South Africa.
Little is known about Banyana Banyana, who have never before played against the U.S., but American head coach Jill Ellis is not taking them lightly.
“Their most recent game was against the Netherlands—we have footage on that—so we have a little bit of information,” explained Ellis, speaking to the media on Friday. “Instantly, there is respect because they’re representing Africa in the Olympics. Nigeria, Ghana, these teams in the past have always been very competitive, very tough to beat, so there is that respect.
“In terms of [their] personnel, we have pretty limited information. I think, and I’ve said this to the players, the focus right now is on us fine-tuning, working on the things we need to execute to be successful regardless of the opponent.”
Goalkeeper Hope Solo agreed with her coach’s assessment.
“We saw a little bit of footage last night on South Africa. They looked fit, they looked skilled on the ball,” said Solo. “Actually, I have a higher opinion [of them] now than I did previously. I kind of like not [fully] knowing what to expect. It forces us to change on the fly. The footage I saw was really great.”
Intensive scouting has both benefits and drawbacks, the goalkeeper said.
“There’s two ways to look at it,” she said. “I hate to say this, but the higher-ranked opponents, there are some tendencies we need to know. We need to see their key players, their formation. But sometimes we just need to play.
“We need to figure out our game and just play. Sometimes the scouting reports get too detailed and then, a lot of times, the team’s don’t even come out and play the way the scouting report showed. For me, it’s too much detail, but the coaches are the ones who run the team.”
Against South Africa, the U.S. is likely to be boosted by the return of midfielder Carli Lloyd, who will be available for selection after coming off an MCL injury earlier this spring.
“Carli’s made good progress,” Ellis revealed. “She’s been fully in training which is important. When you have an injury like that, the contact piece is usually the last piece to add. She’s been in full contact.
“I hope [her layoff] will add a freshness about her. The other players have obviously been playing in the league, [but] it’s not just the games, it’s the travel. For Carli, what she may have lost in terms of the past few weeks, I think she’ll gain in terms of having legs and energy. I haven’t told them the squad that will dress, but she’s available to play.”
On the flip side, winger Megan Rapinoe, coming off a knee injury of her own—a tear to her ACL sustained in December—isn’t quite back to 100%.
“The big question mark for me was, ‘Is Megan going contact?’ We’ve done that, we’ve had her play unrestricted,” confirmed Ellis. “Sometimes when you come back from an injury, it’s not specifically the injury itself, it’s just the general body getting back.
“Right now, she has a little bit of a quad pull which may preclude her from tomorrow and a little bit of tightness in her calf. So, it’s not worth risking her. But have I seen what I needed to see in terms of her going full contact? Yes.”
The match against the 52nd-ranked South Africans should also be a great opportunity for Solo to pick up her 100th shutout, and Ellis thinks the netminder is still a major piece of the puzzle for the American team.
“Hope would fully credit the people playing in front of her, but she’s extraordinary,” said Ellis. “I was thinking about the  Olympics the other day and her performance in the final in London and it was just remarkable. [Also] her performance against Australia in the World Cup.
“She continues to have big moments where she’s a game-changer for us. To reach that number is quite extraordinary.”
For her part, Solo is also looking forward to the achievement.
“I’m excited, I really am,” said the goalkeeper. “It’s something that I’m really proud of, but it’s [been] more of a journey than one game.”
Forward Christen Press said the team is using this final camp to work on game-specific scenarios in preparation for Rio and that the U.S. is more comfortable heading into the Olympics fully knowing their coach’s expectations.
“Every game we have before the Olympics, we do train specifics, different scenarios—up a goal, down a goal, set pieces—different things in each game depending on our opponent, depending on what we think can get the most value, or what our coaches think.
“We’ve tampered with the lineup, the formation, everything. The cool part about going into this Olympics is we’ve had Jill now for two full years and we’ve seen all of what she wants from us, whereas in the World Cup we were kind of in the middle of that transition. We’re very prepared in that sense.”
Defender Julie Johnston, who emerged as a star in last summer’s World Cup, believes the match against South Africa will help the U.S. specifically because their opponents remain a largely unknown entity.
“They’re definitely a great opponent for us to learn from,” said Johnston. “Going into the [Olympic] tournament, you’re going to be in a lot of [different] situations. Playing against them will be another thing we can learn from and help us in to Rio.”
Johnston also said her experience in Canada last summer will be a major bonus this time around.
“The one thing I learned with the World Cup experience is that’s it’s important to take everything day by day—and that’s what we’re doing,” she said. “We won [the World Cup], that’s great, but we’re on to something new.
“We feel good. We’re coming together.”
John D. Halloran is an American Soccer Now columnist. Follow him on Twitter.