The U.S. Women’s National Team begins its quest for the fourth Olympic gold medal in the program’s history when it opens the 2012 London Olympics against France tomorrow at the famed Hampden Park in Glasgow, Scotland.
The match, which kicks off at 12 p.m. ET, will be broadcast live on the NBC Sports Network and the NBC Olympic Soccer Channel. Fans can follow the match via ussoccer.com’s MatchTracker and on Twitter @ussoccer_wnt.
The U.S. team has been in the UK since July 11 and in Glasgow since July 17, and despite some rainy weather, the pre-Olympic training has gone very well for the Americans. Should U.S. defender Christie Rampone start against France as expected, she will become the USA’s all-time leader in Olympic appearances with 17, passing legends Joy Fawcett, Julie Foudy, Kristine Lilly and Kate Markgraf.
The women will hope to avenge last year’s World Cup finals loss to Japan while once again asserting itself as the world’s elite women’s soccer power. Having gone 14-1-1 this year, and with a 4-1 win over Japan among those wins, it appears to have its swagger back.
“When we look back on the World Cup, we take out the best part of it and the fact is that we played the best soccer in the final when it mattered and that is something to be said about the team,” said U.S. coach Pia Sundhage during a July 20 conference call from Glasgow. “So it’s a little bit about our defending style to be able to be physical and compact and not give a technical team a lot of space and time. But more so, the best defending is to keep the ball and we will keep the ball in many different ways. It could be by knocking it around or big balls. So we have the personalities on the field and we are very confident that we’ll go into this tournament to do our very best and bring out the best performance.”
The team appears loose ahead of tomorrow’s opening match, made a video of itself lip-syncing to Miley Cyrus’s Party in the USA:
Sundhage has noted the team’s evolution over the course of her tenure.
“In 2008, it was eight months and then here we go,” Sundhage said. “It took while to get to know the players and Abby got injured just before the Olympics and here we are and I think we are a much better team. Everything we’ve done is better than in 2008. The thing I like the most about this team is the different personalities, so it looks different depending on who’s playing in the starting lineup.
“If you look at the women’s game in general the game is different. Speed of play everything is so much better and we’re talking about just four or five years and you can imagine in the next four or five years it will look different because the improvement on the women’s side is really fast right now. For me it’s a privilege and I really want to emphasize that, to be around good players in 2008 but even better in 2012.”
One of those speedsters is Alex Morgan, coming into her own and expected to play a key role during the Olympics, and will play as a complement to the more physical Abby Wambach.
“She is a very speedy, fast forward who gets behind back lines and defenses and maybe I was doing that in my 22, 23, 24-year-old time, but I am more of a target forward that stays central to get the ball through me so we can move up the field,” Wambach said of Morgan. “Alex is definitely surprisingly very strong on the ball. When she has the ball and has the chance to score it takes a lot to knock her off the ball.
“I think one thing that I remember in 2004 is that Mia [Hamm] and I complimented each other and I think that’s what Alex and I have now. I remember when she first got on this team, being pleasantly surprised with the talent and confidence talent that this young women has…I just hope she continues to perform and score goals at the rate she is doing and giving our team a better chance of winning games. She takes a more little bit more attention off of my back and I know that she’s making a name for herself and the World Cup was just the beginning for her. Hopefully she can continue on through these Olympics.”
Wambach said Sundhage’s approach has allowed the team to blend in its traditional physical style with more possession-based play, and can use each when needed.
“I think what we have all come to realize that the physicality and mentality in the way we play is a USA engrained culture. It’s who we are,” Wambach said. “When Pia got on board she definitely wanted to focus more on possession and keeping the ball and changing the point of attack. I think what we realized in the last year is that combining the two is very important. We know that we have this winning mentality, a never quit mentality, and if you can combine that with the possession style that Pia would love us to play, that’s a team I would fear.”
Without a women’s professional league in the U.S. to give playing time to players, they have done their best to stay in top form through playing in the W-League, WPSL and having more national team games and scrimmages to prepare.
““I think the challenge is getting more 90-minute games in, more so for the non-starting eleven because they’re not getting those 90 minutes consistently,” said U.S. defender Christie Rampone, playing in what could be her last international tournament. “But as far as being together more and having that consistency with the team and playing a lot of scrimmages against other teams against youth men’s teams, we’ve been getting the 90-minute games in. Obviously our focus is doing well in the Olympics but we also haven’t forgotten about the league and our goal coming through the fall is to make sure we try to get this league going so that we do have another option to play in America and not have college soccer (and the youth national teams) be our only feeder system into the national team. We want to make sure we stay on top of the national team and making sure to be the best in the world and that’s having a pro league on our home soil in our back yard.”
Rampone said the team would be focused on controlling its nerves, being that it will be the first game in the Olympics. The team is focused solely on France at the moment, she said, but they know they’ll have just two days in between tomorrow’s match and its next one against Colombia.
“…My focus and I would say that the team’s focus is really just on France,” Rampone said. “But we also do have in mind that next game is going to come quick and then two days recovery we’re on to Colombia. We know that playing Colombia and North Korea in the World Cup so both are great teams in their own way. Colombia is definitely young and they’re athletic so they’re definitely going to bring it. They won’t have as many nerves as they had in the World Cup but I’m sure that they’re getting better.
“North Korea we don’t know a lot about them and haven’t seen them since the World Cup so the only thing we can off on is the way they played in the World Cup. They’re definitely always a team in my career that has always been strong. Obviously in the third game when legs are a little more fatigued, at that moment it’s definitely going to have to be more of mental game and making sure were committed to staying focused for that entire game.”
Otherwise, Sundhage is not talking much about winning the gold medal, though it is in the team’s mindset.
“I would say we always look at the next game and want to play well,” Sundhage said. “And if we always win the next game we’re going to win the gold medal, but I’m not talking about the gold medal that much, I’m talking about the next game. I think that it’s exciting because if you look at our group we have France first and they play very different than Colombia and Colombia plays very different than North Korea. So I’m excited about different styles of soccer and we will make sure that we prepare for the next game and we really want to win the next game and go all the way to the final.”