The US Women’s Olympic soccer team has it all; dangerous forwards, a skillful midfield, sturdy defense and a dynamic goalkeeper. Plus, its players even have a chip on their shoulders from having tasted defeat in last year’s FIFA World Cup Final.
The US team have all the ingredients to win a third straight Olympic gold medal. Yet, this could wind up being pretty meaningless if the team opens the Olympic tournament with a loss on Wednesday against France. The Americans potentially face their toughest test in the group stage, as the French hope to put a serious dent in America’s plans in London.
The teams met just a year ago in the World Cup semifinals in a match the French looked capable of winning before a strong second half propelled the US to a 3-1 victory. The foes meet again in Glasgow in an Olympic opener that is sure to be dramatic and nerve-wracking for both teams.
“The first thing is weathering the nerves and emotion that you have within yourself because it’s the first game in the Olympics,” said US captain Christie Rampone. “The quicker we can come together as a team and work off each other and work through those emotions and put France on their heels, the quicker we’ll get into this tournament and into these games.”
The French team’s combination of speed and technical quality makes them one of the most attractive teams to watch. Unfortunately for the Americans, France is also one of the toughest attacks to stop. US head coach Pia Sundhage appears ready to try and beat the French at their own game, as shown by a shift to a starting lineup with more technical prowess.
“Their strength is the attack and when they get comfortable with the ball in the attacking third they are unpredictable,” Sundhage said. “We need to stay tight, and our back four, with the midfielders, need to be compact and control the game by doing some good defending.”
Sundhage added: “It’s a little bit about our defending style, to be able to be physical and compact and not give a technical team space and time. More so, the best defending is to keep the ball and we will keep the ball in different ways.”
One of the ways Sundhage will be hoping her team can keep the ball is with the introduction of Megan Rapinoe and Lauren Cheney as starters.
“We have different personalities and players like Cheney, she reads the game well and can play in different positions,” Sundhage said. “What I am really happy about is if you look at the flanks, we do have different options and that makes coaching fun.
“We have a starting lineup, but those on the bench will be game-winners,” Sundhage said. “They will come off the bench and they will end the game and be winners.”
Rapinoe was a key catalyst in the United States’ turnaround against France last summer and has played her way into a starting role. As her recent form suggests, Rapinoe’s energy and attacking qualities make her vital to winning the battle in midfield.
“Megan is one of those players on our team who has the ability to change the game,” said US forward Abby Wambach. “She can come on and be the best player on the field. Her biggest challenge is probably herself, and I think she has done such a great job this last year since the World Cup, working hard and getting back into the starting lineup.”
The key to beating France will be containing the French midfield and forwards, which caused many problems last year. Led by dynamic forward Gaetane Thiney and midfield aces Eugenie Le Sommer and Camille Abily, the French offense works off movement and intricate passing that can break down any defense, which will put the onus on the American midfield to win the possession battle.
If the US team’s final warm-up match against Canada was any indication, Sundhage will be looking to match France’s speed by starting a midfield of Rapinoe, Cheney, Tobin Heath and Shannon Boxx. The speed of Heath and Rapinoe on the flanks can certainly cause problems for a French team that likes to throw numbers forward, while veterans like Heather O’Reilly and Carli Lloyd can provide impacts off the bench.
The French attack won’t be the only dangerous one on the field. Alex Morgan has been playing some of the best soccer in the world, and Abby Wambach enters this Olympic tournament healthy and capable of being a terror in the penalty area. If the US midfield can provide some service, Morgan and Wambach are capable of finishing chances. This is something France knows all too well after watching both forwards score goals in last year’s World Cup semifinal.
A victory on Wednesday will allow the US to start on the right foot and avoid a potential quarterfinal showdown against defending World Cup champion Japan should the Americans finish second in their group.
Before the United States can think about the final, they must contend with a dangerous French team that will let us know if this American team can capture a third straight Olympic gold medal.