Team USA to face challenging test against France in Olympic opener
Team USA, France can win gold, but they face each other in their Olympic openers
Coach Pia Sundhage has the real luxury of experienced players at her disposal
Much-improved France has the skill to take control of the vital possession battle
GLASGOW, Scotland -- Three thoughts ahead of the U.S. women's soccer team's Olympic opener against France on Wednesday (noon ET, NBCSN) ...
Both these teams are good enough to win the gold medal -- In the first 2012 Olympic action of any U.S. athletes, the Americans will face off against the world's most improved team over the past two years. France reached the World Cup semifinals last year, giving the U.S. a battle before losing 3-1, and all France has done since the World Cup is rattle off 17 wins in as many games (including a 2-0 friendly victory over world champion Japan last week). "I like starting off with a tough opponent," U.S. midfielder Lauren Cheney said here Tuesday. "Last year someone argued maybe they played a little better than us in [the World Cup semis]. I'd say they are a great team. Their style of play is awesome. Coming into the tournament, playing a team of their caliber sets a tone for us. If we're able to compete with them it's a confidence builder, but if you have a rough start you can see where you need to go from here."
A loss wouldn't doom the U.S., but it would have an impact -- There's an element of forgiveness in a tournament where eight of the 12 teams reach the knockout round -- i.e., you can finish third in your group and still advance-but how you place in your group does make a difference. Chances are the loser of U.S.-France will end up having to play Japan in the quarterfinals, which both teams would prefer to avoid. Then again, the U.S. showed in 2008 that you can lose your first game of the Olympics (to Norway) and still go on to claim the gold medal. Coach Pia Sundhage did say something interesting Tuesday: "The game-winners are on the bench. We have a good team and a lot of options." Perhaps she's attempting to pump up some recently benched regulars (like Carli Lloyd and Heather O'Reilly), but it's certainly a luxury to have players with their experience to bring into a tight game.
The possession battle will be fascinating -- Usually one team will have the majority of possession and the other will settle into absorbing pressure and working the counterattack. But both teams will look to control the ball in this game, with France having the skill to do it (led by central midfield maestro Louisa Nécib) and the U.S. aspiring to do the same now that offensive-minded midfielders Lauren Cheney and Megan Rapinoe will likely be on the field together at the same time (which didn't happen often in 2011). The U.S. attack has been firing on all fronts lately, especially up top with the in-form Alex Morgan and Abby Wambach, and there figure to be plenty of goals in this game. For the players' sake, the opening whistle couldn't come any sooner after a long period of preparation. "We've put the work in at this point," says Rapinoe. "You have to feel confident in yourself. Even if you feel like there's something you could have done, just toss it. It's time to play."
U.S.: Hope Solo; Amy LePeilbet, Rachel Buehler, Christie Rampone, Kelley O'Hara; Megan Rapinoe, Shannon Boxx, Lauren Cheney, Tobin Heath; Alex Morgan, Abby Wambach.
FRANCE: Sarah Bouhaddi; Corine Franco, Ophélie Meilleroux, Wendie Renard, Sonia Bompastor; Camille Abily, Elise Bussaglia; Elodie Thomis, Louisa Nécib, Gaëtane Thiney; Marie-Laure Delie.