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Gold medal or bust: USWNT Olympic preview

Photo: Paul Rudderow

The US women’s national team is probably the only soccer team playing in the Olympics that expects to win a gold medal. The Japanese, German, Brazilian and Swedish women all expect to do well and hope to win medals. The Spanish, Brazilian, and German men all expect to do well and win medals. But the US Women enter the tournament as the No. 1 team in the world, and with a chip on their shoulder.

They could have been World Cup champions last year. They should have been World Cup champions. Their loss in the World Cup final to Japan wasn’t a fluke (as proven when they again lost to the same Japanese team in this year’s Algarve Cup). You’ll hear people say that the rest of the world has caught up to the US Women, that sheer athleticism¬†won’t win gold medals and World Cups any more. And they’re not wrong. But the the US women remain the most dangerous, athletic, and talented team in women’s soccer.

This could be the last go-round for some of the older players on this squad. Abby Wambach, Shannon Boxx, and Christie Rampone know they might not get this chance again. The players know they’re favorites and accept the role. Anything less than a gold medal will be seen as a failure for this squad.

Taking their chances

One of the biggest flaws in the American game over the last year has been their inability to finish the chances they create in important games, an almost impressive problem with the likes of Wambach, Alex Morgan, and Lauren Cheney on the pitch. Their ability to create a large number of chances every match is usually a saving grace. But it was almost certainly the reason for their losses in the World Cup final last year and to the Japanese in the Algarve Cup. In the World Cup final alone, they should have had a 3-o lead in the first half, but they allowed the Japanese to hang around and it cost them.

Possession is rarely a problem for the US women. They take the game to their opponent in almost every match. Scoring goals early and getting the lead will make getting results that much easier. Any team forced to push numbers forward to try and get one or two goals to keep pace with the Americans will leave themselves exposed to Morgan, Rapinoe and Cheney on the counterattack. If that happens, you can count on a 2-0 lead becoming a 5-0 lead very quickly.

Keeping the defense stout

I’m not going to say that the Olympics will be Christie Rampone’s last major tournament with the USWNT. The captain and central defender looks like she could play until she’s 50, and the soccer world would be better for it. Rampone oozes class and better yet, she can still play with the energy of someone half her age. It’s not the oldest player on the team that causes worry about the US back line. Rachel Beuhler looks to have cemented the other central position beside Rampone. Beuhler is decent in the air and holds the line well, but when pressed for speed, she lacks that top gear to track the quicker strikers.

On the outside, Kelly O’Hara has done well to step into the left back role. A striker for her entire career, she’s actually adapted to the outside back role fairly quickly. But there are still instances where she plays left back like a striker. Quick to jump into the attack, she can provide quality service and good runs. But that’s also part of the problem: She’s not yet figured out when to hold those runs. Amy LePeilbet on the right suffers from some of the same problems as Beuhler. A natural central player, her lack of speed is exposed on the outside. Any team with quick wingers (France, Japan) will look to expose that flaw.

Managing the squad

Pia Sundhage called the starting lineup in the US send-off game against Canada her “best XI.” It wasn’t a surprising group, save for the possible preference for Tobin Heath over Heather O’Reilly. The starters are strong. Wambach and Morgan provide a fast and physical duo up top. Megan Rapinoe has played some of her best football as of late and probably serves a better ball than anyone in the world. Lauren Cheney has really stepped into the No. 10 role and owned it. But who are the subs? And when do they get used?

Carli Lloyd has shown flashes of being a top central midfielder. But for every 30-yard screamer she hits into the top corner, there seems to be four lofted shots she hits into Row Z. Her confidence is key, and Sundhage must pick her spots to use her. If the US finds themselves down a goal, she could be the perfect choice to replace an aging Shannon Boxx. Sydney LeRoux has shown she can step in and be that impact sub to find a goal as well. Powerful, fearless, and fast, the youngster is a handful and will threaten any back line she comes up against.

The bigger question is who is the sub that can come in and help the US kill off a game when they have a lead? Amy Rodriguez is a striker turned winger who does well in possession but prefers to get behind opposing back lines. Heather Mitts has looked a step slow on the international level and could be a liability late in a game. Becky Sauerbrunn has proven to be the most reliable defensive player on the bench, and she should be the one brought on to protect a lead.

The Americans open their Olympic campaign at noon today on NBCSN against a talented French squad in Glasgow before taking on Columbia on July 28 and North Korea on July 31.

 

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