Thailand is the opponent drawn up for the first action for the U.S. Women's National Team since their unexpected and early exit from the 2016 Olympic Games following a quarterfinal defeat to Sweden just over one month ago.
The international friendly between the USWNT and the Thai program will take place Thursday night at MAPFRE Stadium, the home of MLS franchise Columbus Crew SC.
The match marks the final appearance of longtime star midfielder Heather O'Reilly — affectionately referred to by colleagues and fans with her initials, HAO — concluding a national team career that dates back to 2002.
After having been designated as an alternate for the Olympic roster that competed in Rio de Janeiro, O'Reilly still traveled to Brazil to help and advise the team however she could and subsequently announced her intentions to retire from international play in a U.S. Soccer press release Sept. 1.
"If, you know, goals or assists come my way [against Thailand], that's obviously awesome but we're looking forward to putting together a good game after coming back disappointed from Rio, to be honest. So this is the first time back together, and yeah, we want to enjoy it and this is sort of the first step to moving on," O'Reilly said Wednesday.
Thursday's match will be the first head-to-head meeting between the USWNT and the Thai women's team, whose accomplishments on the global scale admittedly differ greatly. Thailand played in just its first FIFA Women's World Cup in 2015, while the Stars and Stripes have a rich tradition of competing as favorites in international tournament play over the last 20 years, often hoisting ultimate prizes after so doing.
The USWNT, however, does not yet enjoy the same level of frenzied buzz as their male counterparts have when playing in Columbus, where the heated "Dos a Cero" rivalry with the men's Selección of Mexico has blossomed on the very pitch where head coach Jill Ellis' women will play tonight.
Forward Alex Morgan said she'd like to see that change starting Thursday, citing the conditions at MAPFRE as ideal for a fulfilling match.
"There's a rich history in Columbus from 'Dos a Cero' and playing Mexico here but I feel like we don't have really that connection that the men do here, so hopefully we'll be able to get one," Morgan said before the team's training session. "Perfect pitch, with a nice soccer-specific stadium, that is always a plus for us."
Before the match begins, however, another star USWNT midfielder figures to possibly snag a little bit of O'Reilly's spotlight.
If Megan Rapinoe elects to protest the national anthem Thursday in some way, she would be the first athlete to do so wearing a USA crest since the conversation about the state of racial inequality and mistreatment of minorities by law enforcement in the United States ramped up last month.
Rapinoe has voiced her support for the cause advocated by NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who either sat or knelt for pregame renditions of the anthem during the 2016 preseason and the start of the regular season as a way to symbolize his dissatisfaction with racial injustices in America.
Rapinoe, in turn, knelt herself during the anthem at a Sept. 4 NWSL match and has been vocal about wanting to further the controversial dialogue that's taken the country by storm.
Before the open USWNT practice Wednesday, she spoke on the subject and expanded on her decision to play a role in speaking out on these issues publicly.
"Systematic oppression and racism and racial injustice in this country is what I would like to talk about and that's obviously very broad and multifaceted and nuanced and difficult to talk about," Rapinoe said.
She went on to demonstrate an understanding of how law enforcement officials are often put in tough situations with very little training and how that needs to improve along with the treatment of minority citizens.
"That's not an excuse by any means for any of the brutality or any of the intimidation or killings or violence that has happened on their watch, but I think that it's a very complex issue that needs to be looked at holistically," Rapinoe clarified.
Rapinoe said her fellow players have been supportive of her decision to champion such a divisive cause.
"We have a very educated, socially conscious group, and we always have, in my opinion," Rapinoe said. "It's hard conversations though. And it's hard a lot of times for white people to talk about if you don't have a lot of experience with people of color or communities of color, which personally I don't, and I'm learning every day and trying to be more open but it's a tough conversation. We've only been in camp for, whatever, a day, but I think that, you know, I talked with the team last night. We had a really open conversation about how people feel and about how I feel and I think everybody is very open to it and wants to, you know help in a way that they can.
"I know that I've drug everybody in this around me and into this thing, which is, I'm definitely not apologizing for. I think it's something that's necessary but I'm, I'm aware of that and aware that not everybody's comfortable speaking out like I am … so I try to be sensitive to that while still, you know, pushing the conversation."
With regard to her intentions Thursday evening, Rapinoe said Wednesday that she will "take all sides into account and ultimately it will be up to me and what I feel convicted about, what's in my bones and what I feel like is right."
Thursday's match versus Thailand is slated for an 8 p.m. kickoff and will be broadcast nationally on ESPN2. We will be disseminating live updates of news relating to the match and aforementioned happenings on Twitter at @MassiveReport.