It's been a perfect start for Team USA in its pursuit for another World Championship.
The top-ranked U.S. team is off to a 5-0 start in this year's WBSC Women’s Softball World Championship, which is underway in Chiba, Japan. It’s an intriguing field for all the teams aspiring to play in the next Olympic Games.
Thus far, the U.S. has knocked off Mexico, Chinese Taipei, the Netherlands, New Zealand and the Philippines. Team USA will round out preliminary round play on Tuesday and Wednesday when it takes on South African and Puerto Rico, respectively.
The playoff round begins on Aug. 10 and wraps up with the gold- and bronze-medal games on Aug. 12. You can follow Team USA throughout the tournament with live updates on GameChanger.
Here are five storylines to watch for during the next 6 days of softball action at its finest and most competitive:
There’s no ignoring the fact that this year’s world championship is more important than normal as the tournament champion earns an automatic spot in the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. Since Japan receives an automatic host bid, if they win the tournament then the team that wins silver will qualify for the Games.
Most expect that one way or another Team USA will solidify its place in Tokyo 2020 once this is all said and done. But if another team wanted extra motivation to defy the odds and win the world championship, the time is now.
The U.S. vs. Japan
These two teams are widely expected to enter yet another chapter in their long history of playing one another for major titles. Japan beat Team USA in the last Olympic gold-medal game, in 2008, before the sport was dropped for the Olympic program. The two teams have met in all six world championships dating back to 2002, with Japan winning in 2012 and 2014 and the U.S. winning the rest. Most recently, Team USA beat Japan 10-5 in the USA Softball International Cup in July.
So far, both teams are a perfect 5-0 in preliminary round play. If the two teams are in the gold-medal contest, as expected, then both will be assured of their Olympic status before the game even begins. But that doesn’t mean it won’t be a battle for the title of world champion. Beating Japan on its home turf won’t be easy.
A Veteran Squad
The U.S. roster features 13 players with world championship experience, including Valerie Arioto and Michelle Moultrie, the two longest-serving members on the team. Left-handed pitcher Monica Abbott is the only member of the team to have played in the Olympics back in 2008. She opened the tournament in a big way against Mexico with 13 strikeouts in a winning effort and followed that up with a four-inning no hitter against the Netherlands.
The core of this team might have multiple world championships under their belt. However, other veterans and some newcomers are knocking on the door and looking for their shot to play in the 2020 Games. With that in mind, the members of Team USA who are playing in this tournament will not be taking their spots on the team for granted.
It will be surprising if the gold-medal game doesn’t come down to the U.S. and Japan. But this is also a chance to see how other countries are investing more in their national programs with the sport back on the Olympic stage.
Multiple countries, including Mexico and Puerto Rico, have players that have come through the NCAA and played in this year’s Women’s College World Series. Puerto Rico, for instance, features seven players who participated in this year’s WCWS, including pitchers Meghan King (Florida State), Taran Alvelo (Washington) and Giselle Juarez (Arizona State). This team full of collegiate players is also off to a perfect 5-0 start.
Other countries, such as Australia, have worked to bolster their roster by playing in National Pro Fastpitch, the U.S.-based professional league. The country’s national team, nicknamed the Aussie Bandits, joined the league this season and hope that experience will lead to international success.
Four newcomers made it onto this year’s U.S. squad after catching the eye of USA Softball. Taylor Edwards, Rachel Garcia, Kirsti Merritt and Danielle O’Toole are the four rookies on this year’s roster. They are looking to add world champion to their resumes and show what they can do on this big stage and hope a strong performance could lead to a spot on the Olympic Team.
Thus far, O'Toole stood out with a strong performance in Monday's win over the Philippines as she pitched a four-inning shutout to earn the win.
From GameChanger and Karen Price.
Photo Credit to USA Softball