A year ago this week, Americans gathered around TV sets and fell in love with Abby, Megan, Christie, Alex, Shannon, Ali and Hope. The spunky U.S. women’s national soccer team, with its superb athleticism and never-say-die attitude, added sizzle to the July sports doldrums.
Even fringe fans were drawn to Abby Wambach’s game-winning headers, Megan Rapinoe’s textbook crosses, Christie Rampone’s defense and Hope Solo’s reliable hands (her cover-girl looks didn’t hurt TV ratings, either). The nation’s heart broke when the United States lost the Women’s World Cup final to Japan in a dramatic penalty-kick shootout, and there was more sad news a few months later, when the Women’s Professional League folded.
Time for the moping to end. That lovable team is back for an encore at the 2012 London Olympics and is heavily favored to win the gold medal. The U.S. women arrived in England on Wednesday, decked in red-and-white rugby-striped shirts, ready to defend the gold they won in Beijing four years ago. The United States won the Olympic gold medal in 1996, 2004 and 2008 but had to settle for silver in 2000.
The Americans are coming off an impressive string of tuneup matches — winning 2-1 over Canada, 4-1 over Japan and 3-1 over Sweden — and are determined to make up for the loss last summer. They will practice in northeast England for a week at the Middlesbrough FC training facility and then head to Glasgow, Scotland, where they open against France on July 25 at Hampden Park (two days before the Olympic Opening Ceremonies).
The United States then faces Colombia on July 28 and North Korea three days later at Old Trafford, the longtime home of Manchester United.
Of the 18 players on the roster, 11 are holdovers from the Beijing gold-medal team. Midfielders Shannon Boxx and Heather O’Reilly and defender Heather Mitts are in their third Olympics. Rampone, the 36-year-old captain, is playing in her fourth Olympics. Half the team comes from California (five players) and New Jersey (four players).
Much of the scoring burden will fall on Wambach and Alex Morgan, who have combined for 20 goals in the past 11 matches. Wambach is particularly motivated because she missed the 2008 Olympics with a broken leg. The University of Florida alum has scored 138 goals for the national team, second only to Mia Hamm. Though she is 32 years old, she is still in spectacular shape. If you have any doubt, check out her bare-all photo in last week’s ESPN The Magazine Body Issue. The 5-11 forward said in an interview with the magazine that she is quite comfortable in her muscular frame and pleased to be a role model for bigger-boned women.
The team’s charismatic guitar-playing coach, Pia Sundhage, promises her team will “have fun” at the Olympics, and she has high hopes for the gold.
“We have a mix of experienced players and several fresh faces,” she said. “All our players are versatile, which is extremely important when you have just 16 field players.”
The lineup will remain similar to last summer, with some minor tweaks. Right back Ali Krieger tore her ACL in January and will be replaced by Amy LePeilbet. Tobin Heath and Lauren Chaney will probably get more play in midfield alongside Rapinoe.
France is a much-improved team, as it showed in the World Cup last year, and should be the toughest group match for the Americans. Assuming the United States advances to the knockout stage (a very safe assumption), the most formidable opponents are expected to be Brazil, Sweden and Japan.
The U.S. men’s Under-23 team failed to qualify for the Olympics. The two representatives from the CONCACAF region are Honduras and Mexico, an extremely talented young team expected to make a deep run. Other medal favorites include Brazil, with superstar Neymar; Spain, winner of the U-21 European championship; Uruguay; and host Great Britain, with 38-year-old Ryan Giggs among its three overage players. Soccer icon David Beckham, who played a key role in London’s Olympic bid, was left off the Great Britain team but surely will be visible throughout the tournament.
Brazil has won the World Cup a record five times but has never won the Olympic gold medal. The Brazilians won silver in 1984 and 1988, and bronze in 1996 and 2008. Argentina won the past two Olympics, in Athens and Beijing, where Lionel Messi became a household name. The Argentines shockingly did not qualify this time. Other teams in the tournament are Senegal, United Arab Emirates, Gabon, Switzerland, South Korea, Egypt, New Zealand, Belarus, Japan and Morocco.