When it comes to Olympic women's soccer, it used to be strictly a two-horse race. And if we're really being honest, one of the horses - the Americans - had a head start that combined a rocket pack and just about every other imaginable advantage available.
They've won gold at three of the last four summer Olympics, and heading into the London Games, there is no reason to consider them anything other than the favourites. But in the expanding world of women's soccer, they're no longer so far ahead of the pack that everyone else is just there playing for silver. The U.S. women finally have real competition. And, in fact, with the demise of women's professional soccer this year, where most of the player's ply their trade, the time of owning the winner's circle could be coming to end.
The trio of Abby Wambach, Alex Morgan and Sydney LeRoux will undoubtedly fill the net for the U.S. side, but with an aging squad there are some questions of whether the Americans will be able to keep pace with the young teams.
With that in mind, here are five teams that could give the U.S., a run for its money:Japan
While some will look at this squad's recent accomplishments - most notably beating the Americans on penalties at last year's World Cup final in Germany - and conclude it too should be considered favourites, it would be wise to temper those expectations, slightly.
The Japanese have made great strides in the past few years in developing a system that works to their strengths - mostly speed and tight technique. But most forget that prior to the World Cup, they were but a blip on the radar of women's soccer.
Their play last year, partly the benefit of a good draw at the group level, and mostly a result of the superlative performance of midfielder Homare Sawa, is not going to be easy to duplicate. Sawa is a tremendously talented midfielder who played out of her skull for most of the tournament. If, at 33-years-old, she can replicate that experience, Japan should find itself battling for top spot once again.
Top 10 Players to Watch
- Christine Sinclair, Canada
- Marta, Brazil
- Abby Wambach, United States
- Homare Sawa, Japan
- Alex Morgan, United States
- Lotta Schelin, Sweden
- Marie-Laure Delie, France
- Jill Scott, England
- Kim Little, England
- Christiane, Brazil
Perhaps the most exciting team at the tournament is the one no one is talking about. This French side deserves all the respect it gets, and more, after a surprise performance at last year's World Cup ended with the a narrow fourth-place finish.
The French play the fluid, pro-active game and their midfield talent makes for an easy-on-the-eyes game to watch. And moreover, they hold the potential for thrilling finishes.
Most promising is striker Eugenie Le Sommer, who struggled at her first World Cup, finishing without a goal. However, three years earlier, at the FIFA Under-20 competition, she tore through her competition and was pegged as a future great.
With another year of playing under her belt at the senior level, Le Sommer looks poised to live up to those projections and finally establish herself on the world's stage.
If she can do that, France will go far.Brazil
Which Brazil side will show up at these Olympics?
Will it be the free flowing, wildly creative and seemingly unstoppable offensive juggernaut? Or, perhaps it will be the tactically deficient, somewhat rudimentary style that has become exposed in recent years?
As the world has slowly caught up to the U.S., it has done so by playing a more disciplined game. Where Brazil is blessed with inherent raw talent that excites and inspires, it is also cursed with a willingness to wilt in physical matches that are more defensive in nature.
With the likes of Marta on their squad anything is possible - including beating the Americans - but it's just as likely the Brazilians could bow out in the quarter-finals if they meet the wrong opponent.Sweden
The Swedes are another big question mark at these Games. Despite capturing third at the last World Cup and being a force in women's soccer for the last generation, they are still undergoing a youthful rebuild.
By the time the next World Cup comes to Canada in 2015 they will likely have surpassed the Americans in terms of talent and tactics but for now they're still very green and will be relying heavily on their old guard to carry them through.
Sweden's success begins and ends with Lotta Schelin up front and Hedvig Lindahl in net. If the pair turn in above-board performances and their newest players can rise to the occasion, Sweden will find the podium. If they can get hot then this team can perhaps challenge for gold.Canada
It wouldn't be much of an Olympic preview if we didn't at least give the ladies in red a fighting chance. And to be fair, they are very much in the mix but it will take a Herculean effort by the entire squad to lift them on to the podium.
Since taking over, head coach John Herdman has spent an equal amount of time re-building the squad's broken ego as well as recalibrating the media expectations. Ahead of the World Cup there were, in retrospect, wildly disproportionate projections for the Canadians.
In the lead-up, reaching the final was not out of the question. And when they failed to register a win and escape their own group, the criticism was also wildly out of proportion. Simply put, they lost their nerve when things took a turn for the worse and they never recovered.
They classically underperformed and it served as a harsh reality check on where they stood in the world. They were no longer on the cusp of breaking through. They were firmly on the outside looking in.
If there is a hope for Canada it comes in two forms. The arrival of Sophie Schmidt in the midfield frees up Diana Matheson to play the creative game that was always her strength. This is perhaps the first competition where she will be asked to play the role that is most natural to her. And with that, Canada could finally find itself with another attacking option in the final third.
This will come as great relief to one player - Canada's captain.
By now, everyone knows who Christine Sinclair is and how prolific she has been on the international stage. That she recently broke her own record for most goals in a year by a Canadian (17 and counting) really is a testament to how on form she has been. And at 137 goals all time, she is quickly closing in on Mia Hamm's record of 158.
Having said that, this could be the last major competition where we see Sinclair in her prime. At 29-years-old, she may not be willing to admit it publicly, but she has to know that her body is dancing along its peak. And with that knowledge you can expect nothing less from her than to drag Canada into the knockout rounds and perhaps beyond.
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