Tough draw for the USWNT?
It looks challenging on paper, but U.S. coach Pia Sundhage isn't worried
When the women's Olympic soccer tournament kicks off in late July, there will be no shortage of familiar opponents for the U.S. women's national team.
The draw for the competition was announced in London on Tuesday, and the U.S. was placed in Group G alongside France, North Korea and Colombia, all of whom were beaten by the Americans at last summer's World Cup. The U.S. will open the tournament on July 25 against France in Glasgow's Hampden Park and then play Colombia three days later at the same venue. Finishing off the group stage: a meeting with North Korea at Old Trafford on July 31.
"It's a tough group of course, if you look at the rankings," said U.S. head coach Pia Sundhage via telephone. "The first game [against France] will be the toughest, but I think that's good for us. I think it's good for this team, the challenge of playing against a skillful opponent. I think that we'll be on top of everything and we know that is challenging and a little bit of pressure. This team likes that, so that will be good for us. Hopefully that will also be a good start and we go from there."
Given that only 12 teams will vie for gold, judging what constitutes a tough draw is a matter of degree. The group stage, one comprised of three groups of four teams each, is rather forgiving in that the top two finishers in each group, plus the two best third-place teams, will qualify for the quarterfinals. For that reason, the U.S. was never going to find itself in a group so daunting that elimination was a worry. After all, the Americans' all-time record against these three opponents is 16-0-2.
But relatively speaking, the U.S. received few favors. The U.S., along with Japan and host Great Britain, was one of the three seeded teams, and could be considered fortunate to have avoided Brazil, who landed alongside host Great Britain in Group E with New Zealand and Cameroon.
But without question, the Americans' group is much deeper than that of the hosts. France, currently ranked No. 6 in the world, is a team on the rise, and will be keen to gain a measure of revenge for losing to the Americans 3-1 in the semifinals of the 2011 World Cup. Colombia, ranked 28th, is the weakest team of the group by far, but still boasts some impressive young talent, including young playmaker Yoreli Rincon. Eighth-ranked North Korea is a wild card given how infrequently the team plays abroad. But it will be eager to forget its disappointing showing in Germany, where it failed to advance past the group stage, thanks in part to a 2-0 opening game defeat against the Americans.
"One thing you know about North Korea is that they come with technical, skillful, and fast players," Sundhage said. "I'm happy we have a chance to see them twice before we play them because you never know with North Korea, it's hard to do the scouting. So that's a good thing that they play two games before they play us. That's a good thing compared to the World Cup."
Given these group opponents, an argument can be made that the U.S. was placed in the proverbial Group of Death, but that moniker is better used for Group F, which contains World Cup champion Japan, Sweden, Canada and South Africa.
Yet beyond mere labels, the stacked nature of Group F could impact the U.S. later in the tournament in that there is a real possibility the Americans could end up facing one of those teams in the quarterfinals. If the U.S. finishes top of its group, it could play the third-place team in Group F. If the Americans were to finish second, they could end up playing Japan. But for Sundhage, it doesn't pay to look too far ahead.
"I'm looking at the next game," Sundhage said. "If you want to win the gold medal, you have to win every game. Instead of speculating what's good or not good, it doesn't matter."
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Past history offers up plenty of examples in this regard. At the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, the U.S. was beaten by Norway 2-0 in its opening match, only to rally for gold in a pulsating final against Brazil. The Americans' roller-coaster ride to last summer's World Cup final provided another lesson in focusing on the present.
For Sundhage, that means putting the team through a training camp in Bradenton, Fla., in a bid to not only prepare the team physically, but also whittle her roster down to 18 players, which is three players fewer than what was available at the World Cup.
"I think having a smaller roster will make us stronger," she said. "Compete within the team, that's the message. If you compete, then we can compete against any team in the world."
And win a gold medal, as well.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He is also the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He can be reached at email@example.com.
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