U.S. women’s soccer team coming to Utah for World Cup, Olympic qualifying tune-up

Former BYU Ashley Hatch hoping to return to Rio Tinto will be first step in fairytale journey

Chicago Red Stars' Bianca St. Georges, right, battles with Washington Spirit forward Ashley Hatch (33) during the first half of an NWSL Challenge Cup soccer match at Zions Bank Stadium, Saturday, June 27, 2020, in Herriman, Utah. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

The bread crumbs along the path to the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup and the 2024 Olympics have finally been laid out for the United States Women’s National Team.

Before they can follow them, though, the coaches and soccer players need to make sure they’re all going in the same direction. And one of the ways they hope to find their bearings is by playing a friendly against Colombia at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy.

The USWNT is set to play Colombia on June 28 at 8 p.m. in the final tune-up before the start of the Concacaf W Championship, U.S. Soccer announced Thursday.

For national team player Ashley Hatch, the friendly against Colombia will be a homecoming of sorts. Hatch played for BYU from 2013-16 and her first minutes with the USWNT came during a friendly against Switzerland at Rio Tinto in October 2016.

“I’m excited. It’s been a while since I’ve played there, but my first cap with the national team was there, so it’s a pretty special place,” Hatch, 26, told The Salt Lake Tribune in a phone interview this week. “And Utah is like one of my second homes.”

The U.S. women have played at Rio Tinto, the home field for Major League Soccer’s Real Salt Lake, five times since it opened in 2008. But it has been four years since their last game in Sandy, when they defeated China PR 1-0 in June 2018.

Hatch, meanwhile, has played at Rio Tinto a handful of times. Appearances include her national team debut and a few National Women’s Soccer League games against the Utah Royals before their move to Kansas City in 2020. But this one feels different. This time she has a real chance to make the national team roster and take the field in one of the major tournaments the team can qualify for through the upcoming Concacaf tournament.

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune Ashley Hatch, center left, currently a forward at BYU, received her first call-up to the U.S. women's national team roster for matches against Switzerland this week, as she practices with the team in Sandy recently.

“It’s huge for me,” said Hatch, who has four goals in eight appearances with the national team. “It’s my first time kind of experiencing all of the excitement and the expectation of making a roster, qualifying for a World Cup, qualifying for the Olympics. So it’s all new to me. Normally I’m a spectator or cheering on other teammates trying to make these rosters. So it’s exciting. It definitely pushes me every day.”

Scheduled for July 4-18 in Monterrey, Mexico, the Concacaf W Championship is arguably the most critical tournament of this quad for the national team. The four semifinalists will automatically secure berths to the 2023 FIFA World Cup, which will be jointly hosted by Australia and New Zealand. The winner, meanwhile, will seize a guaranteed spot in the Paris Olympics as well as in the 2024 Concacaf Gold Cup. A second Olympic and Gold Cup berth will go to the winner of a September game between the tournament runner-up and the third-place team.

During Tuesday night’s draw in Miami, the top-seeded USWNT learned it will need to vanquish Mexico (No. 27), Jamaica (No. 51) and Haiti (No. 61) in Pool A to reach the semifinals. The B pool includes Canada, Costa Rica (No. 36), Panama (No. 58) and Trinidad & Tobago (No. 73)

Hatch wasn’t willing to provide any locker room fodder by singling out teams of most or least concern. She did note, however, that one of her teammates on the NWSL’s Washington Spirits plays for Mexico as a defender.

“Every team we play always gives us their best,” Hatch said, echoing a phrase she’s heard often from USWNT head coach Vlatko Andonovski. “So, it’s good for us and it’s exciting because we know that every opponent that we come up on the field against is going to give us their best.”

The cornerstone of having success against that kind of effort is synergy, and that’s primarily what the USWNT players and coaches will address during their session in Sandy.

United States' Lynn Williams (13) receives a hug from teammate Ashley Hatch, rear, following the team's 4-0 win over Switzerland in an international friendly soccer match Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2016, in Sandy, Utah. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

“When we get to [these friendlies], we’ll be coming off a stretch of more than two months that the players have been with their clubs and away from the National Team environment,” Andonovski said in a press release, “so we’ll be looking to get maximum value out of our last days and games together before we go to Mexico for qualifying.”

Colombia ranks No. 26 in the FIFA standings — higher than any team in the Concacaf championship other than the U.S. and No. 6 Canada — and is No. 2 in South America behind Brazil. It will use the match against the Americans to prepare for the Copa América Feminina, which it is set to host on July 8-30. The top three finishers in that event also qualify for the World Cup.

“Colombia has a good chance to make it to the World Cup and both teams will be in our final preparations for our qualifying tournaments,” Andonovski said. “So I expect some highly competitive matches between players who are competing to represent their countries in some really important games.”

If the bread crumbs don’t suffice, history could guide the USWNT to those prestigious tournaments. The USA has qualified for every Women’s World Cup since its inception in 1991 and has won four titles. The team is also seeking its eighth straight trip to the Olympics. In fact, in Concacaf qualifying for both events, combined, the USWNT’s has amassed a dominant record of 55-1-1. The only loss came to Mexico in the 2010 semifinals. The U.S. then had to win the play-in match and two qualifiers over Italy to reach the 2011 Women’s World Cup in Germany, where it finished runner-up to Japan.

“I feel like we, as a team, have high standards for ourselves. Based off of the girls that have played before us and qualified before us, they’ve set that bar and that standard really high,” said Hatch, the reigning NWSL Golden Boot winner who has scored three goals in her last four Challenge Cup matches with the Spirits. “So I feel like it’s, I don’t know, expected, but we know it’s not going to be easy. Because we know everyone’s going to give us their best and everyone wants to beat us. So the standard is high.”

However unlikely a scenario, the USWNT does have a safety net if it fails to get out of pool play in Mexico. The third-place finishers in each Concacaf championship pool — in addition to two teams from the Copa América Feminina — will advance to a 10-team intercontinental playoff tournament, which will be held as a World Cup test event in New Zealand and Australia in February 2023. Three of those teams will advance to the actual World Cup, set to run from July 20 to Aug. 20, 2023.

Hatch hasn’t really considered any of those scenarios. She’s focused first and foremost on making sure she’s on that USWNT roster when the team returns to Rio Tinto and her old stomping grounds. That’s the first step to making a fairytale come true.

“I mean, I think it’s every little girl’s dream to be able to represent your country at the Olympics or the World Cup. But it’s becoming, you know, more of a reality and more of a goal and something that I really want to do,” she said. “Obviously, there’s a lot outside of my control, but yeah, everything that is inside my control, I’m definitely trying my hardest to make it a possibility.”

Presale tickets for the Rio Tinto match will go on sale April 27 and public sales are expected to begin May 2. Tickets can be purchased at ussoccer.com.