Ready for soccer semifinals? Check!
Julie Foudy's Hat Trick
LONDON -- It is all going according to plan for the U.S. women's soccer team at the London Olympics.
Four wins in four games? Check.
Shutting out the competition so far (yes, my clock starts 14 minutes into the first game)? Check.
Abby Wambach scoring in every Olympic match? Check.
Alex Morgan tearing apart defenses, even if not scoring as often? Check.
A semifinal date against Canada on Monday without much pregame fuss needed? Check.
Outside of allowing those two early goals within the first 14 minutes of its opening match against France, the U.S. team has been in command; not completely dominant, but in command. The back line has not been tested much; but, when it has, it has shut down any play before it can even become a shot on goal. In fact, I think I saw Hope Solo pull out her picnic blanket in the middle of that New Zealand game. The Americans are supposed to be in the semifinals, and here they are, healthy, happy and focused.
What is not going to plan (at least historically) is which other teams reached the semifinals of this tournament. It isn't a surprise that the U.S. team made it. The American women are always there, and I mean always: They have reached the semifinal round in every Women's World Cup and Olympic tournament.
But the other three teams are relatively new to this stage. Japan won the World Cup last summer, but its best finish in a tournament before that was a fourth-place showing in the 2008 Games. Before 2008, Japan had never made it past the quarterfinals in the World Cup or Olympics.
France made it to the Women's World Cup semifinals in 2011, the first time it had gone that deep in an Olympic or WWC tournament. For Canada, it is now one win from earning a team medal in a traditional sport at a Summer Olympics for the first time since 1936. Yes, 1936. And this is essentially the same Canadian team that finished last out of 16 teams at last summer's Women's World Cup. To those who have written this game off, beware: The Canadians have a new coach, John Herdman, and a new approach. They look confident and free. Any team that has those attributes shoots to the top of my "Danger: Underdog" list.
The teams we're used to seeing in the final stages have either fizzled over the years or just can't seem to get it together at the right moments. No Brazil (five-time world player of the year Marta again goes home without a title) or Sweden, no Germany or China; no Norway while I'm at it.
Change often signals progress, and having new teams advance deeper into the tournament is a great sign for women's soccer. More countries are supporting their women's soccer programs, and it is anyone's game nowadays. At least in theory. I still believe Team USA will be standing atop the podium at the end of these Olympics, singing loud and proud and off-tune to our national anthem -- the only way to sing it if you are an American women's soccer player.