The United States got the job done in their first two Olympic qualifying games, winning twice and clinching a spot in the semifinal round. With a spot in Rio on the line in that semifinal - oddly, the semis are the key game to win in this tournament, as the champion gets little more than bragging rights - this third game against Puerto Rico is about rotating in new players and avoiding injury.
How much of a mismatch is this? Puerto Rico has conceded 15 goals and scored 0 against the same teams that the USWNT has scored 6 on without conceding. That goals scored number could be greater if the US hadn't hit the post twice against Mexico, or (more importantly) if they had not been uncharacteristically sloppy for 90 minutes on Saturday.
Still, technically speaking there's a mathematical chance that the US could fall to 2nd in the group, which would in all likelihood mean a far more difficult semifinal against Canada. The players who haven't gotten minutes yet will have to seize this opportunity to get themselves future starts, and those who have been starting will need to keep the team on track and make sure that this game is as easy as it should be. Another unfocused effort could force the USWNT have to work hard to break down a bunkering foe, and extra effort will put several players in danger of picking up an injury or simply being worn out in the crucial semifinal.
Key player: Samantha Mewis
This list could include several players thanks to the circumstances. Just over 48 hours after scraping out a win against Mexico, the USWNT has to play another game because women's soccer teams don't get fair treatment. That means trying to qualify with a roster of 20 rather than 23, and then having one day between games. A quick look at minutes played in the tournament shows us that Jill Ellis has 7 players who have gone 180 minutes (and two more have played over 160 minutes). There are 14 players with appearances, meaning Ellis has used the same players in both games and has 6 players with 0 minutes played.
It's safe to assume that the badly overmatched Puerto Ricans will see Kelley O'Hara, Stephanie McCaffrey, Emily Sonnett, and maybe even Ashlyn Harris or Alyssa Naeher in goal. We're focusing on Mewis, though, as she appears to be the one natural #6 that Ellis is going to give a chance to this year.
Ellis has established a pattern of not really wanting to use a specialist defensive midfielder when there are good attacking or box-to-box midfielders she thinks she can convert available. That's how we ended up with a Lauren Holiday + Carli Lloyd central midfield during the World Cup, and how Morgan Brian - a #10 in college - has pushed her way into the team. The former was clearly not a good fit for anyone involved; the latter fortunately solved the problem with her selfless running, tidy passing, and badly underrated toughness.
Today, Brian is partnering Lindsey Horan, who was until recently seen as a forward (perhaps why she's wearing the #9 shirt in this tournament). Mewis probably isn't needed in a tournament like this, where the USWNT has far and away the most talented roster in the field. The role of a truly defensive midfielder has simply not been required thus far.
Today, though, Mewis should get the full 90 to protect Brian from an overuse injury. It's a good opportunity for the WNY Flash player to prove she can play well in another game where no one needs to sit in and screen the back four. Puerto Rico - who are fielding what is largely a very young team in an attempt to build for the years to come - is not going to cause a situation where Mewis needs to stay home, so she needs to show Ellis that she can play similarly to Brian (or even Horan, who has spent time as a very deep playmaker in both games) if she's going to receive more minutes in the future.
The NWSL has numerous very good defensive midfielders, with a vocal chunk of the woso community already looking for someone like Danielle Colaprico to take this role in the near future. This might be a closing window for a player like Mewis, who will also not get many minutes in general given that Ellis likes to play her top players as often as possible (just ask Harris, who has 8 caps despite being in every camp for years now).
Location: Toyota Stadium (Frisco, TX)
Kick-off time: 8:30pm Eastern
Available TV: NBCSN (English)
Available streaming: NBC Sports Live Extra (English), NBC Deportes En Vivo Extra (Spanish).
Available radio: None
For listings in other countries, check out LiveSoccerTV.com.
Treat this as the gamethread for today's match.