Jul 24 Kicking Things Off

By Joanne C Gerstner | July 24, 2012, 12 a.m. (ET)

Abby Wambach

It’s been a hectic road for the U.S. women’s soccer team for the past 18 months, taking it around the world in a quest to win the 2011 World Cup in Germany and now the upcoming London 2012 Olympic Games.

The World Cup mission memorably fell short in a gut-wrenching shootout loss to Japan in the final last July. Since then, the U.S. team has made the London Games its singular focus.

The preparations end Wednesday, when Team USA starts Olympic play against France, a tough group opponent, in Glasgow, Scotland. The soccer competition begins two days before the Opening Ceremony.

American star forward Abby Wambach said her team is hungry for redemption in the Olympic Games since painfully losing the World Cup. The stunned U.S. team somberly accepted the second-place trophy that day in Frankfurt as golden confetti rained and the Japanese team hugged and danced around them.

“There is no better motivation than losing the World Cup, in my opinion,” said Wambach, who won Olympic gold in 2004 but missed the 2008 Games due to injury. “We did cool things in Germany; we got people excited about the women’s game again. … This team has something to prove, all of us are competitors through and through. We compete in everything, even in ping pong on our team floor here.

“To get so close and lose a soccer tournament, not to mention the World Cup, adds fuel to the fire. We’ve had a short time to prepare, and in a way it’s really nice and important for the freshness of the loss to be stuck in our hearts and minds.”

If history is any guide, a U.S. women’s soccer team fresh from losing in the World Cup is a dangerous thing for the rest of the Olympic field since women’s soccer was added to the Games in 1996.

The United States has finished third in the World Cup three times: 1995, 2003 and 2007. In the next year’s Olympic Games — 1996 in Atlanta, 2004 in Athens and 2008 in Beijing — the Americans won the gold medal.

The 2012 Olympic field is deep, with defending World Cup champion Japan, European powers in France and host team Great Britain, a rebuilding Sweden, and the technically-dazzling Brazil. Dark horses such as Canada and New Zealand could upset one of the favorites.

The United States is in a group with France, North Korea, and Colombia. The gold-medal match will be Aug. 9 in Wembley Stadium, the famous English stadium in north London.

Wambach, along with coach Pia Sundhage and veteran defender Christie Rampone, see the competition in women’s soccer sharpening. Sundhage, in particular, said reviewing video of the Beijing 2008 Olympic tournament showed her how much the game has improved in four years.

Things were very different four years ago, as Sundhage was a new coach and had to cope with losing Wambach due to a broken left leg just a few weeks before the Games started. This year, a healthy Wambach and near-full-strength U.S. team have blended Sundhage’s technical, possession style of soccer with trademark American physicality.

“We are so much better of a team,” Sundhage said, comparing the 2012 London roster to the 2008 team. “The women’s game, in general, is better. The speed of play, everything has gotten better in the past four, five years. Imagine what things will look like in the next four, five years? It will look different, because the improvement on the women’s side is really fast now.”

The only question mark facing the deep U.S. team will be the evolution of the defense. Rampone, who will be playing in her fourth Olympic Games, is the quarterback of the U.S. back line. Learning to how to play with Sundhage’s tweaked flow, trying to maintain pressure against more technical players and still be physical, have been priorities since the World Cup.

Rampone, along with midfielder Shannon Boxx, will need to stay in constant communication to make sure spacing stays correct.

“The back four have been getting stronger each game, yes, we’ve had some breakdowns and not a lot of time together,” Rampone said. “…Defensively we want to put as much pressure as possible on the other team. It’s a footrace in the back, always trying to dictate tempo through the back four.”

U.S. star goalie Hope Solo said she is ready for the various attacking styles that she will face. The French are a disciplined and fast team, with games against Colombia and North Korea bringing a more unpredictable, and unknown, attack.

Solo said she is stronger this year than in the World Cup, as she is fully recovered from 2010 reconstructive shoulder surgery and has her conditioning back. This will be Solo’s second Olympic Games as the mainstay in the U.S. goal, having helped the Americans win in Beijing.

“The shoulder surgery took a lot more to get back than people realize,” Solo said. “I had to be confident to land on my shoulder over and over. I had to gain strength, but not over-do it. … I feel like myself again, like 2010, before the shoulder surgery, right now. I’m feeling great.”

Story courtesy RedLine Editorial, Inc. Joanne C. Gerstner is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.
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