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U.S. women still strong medal contenders

For perhaps the first time in the history of women's Olympic soccer, the U.S. will enter the tournament as a wild card. Even with an internationally renowned coach, a 21-0-1 record and a FIFA No. 1 ranking, the U.S. women's national team has become something of an enigma.

Key questions

1. Will Pia Sundhage's possession model work?

Under new coach Sundhage's direction, the team is in the midst of phasing out the "boot-and-run" strategy, but quality 90-minute possession is still a ways off.

Exchanges in the center of the park can be forced at times, and the turnover rate in the midfield and attacking third is still higher than Sundhage would like. Nonetheless the midfield earns the most improved award, thanks to the sharpened playmaking abilities and improved vision of Carli Lloyd and Shannon Boxx. The defensive half is also getting goalkeeper Hope Solo more involved, opting to pass back and get the restart, rather than dispatching the long ball under pressure.

If Boxx and Lloyd find a way to get Lindsay Tarpley and Heather O'Reilly more involved on the flanks earlier in the transition, they'll have a lot more space to maneuver up the field. Lloyd makes her share of impressive runs up the center, but her speed sometimes leaves her vulnerable to getting stripped from behind. The first-time Olympian could really turbocharge the U.S. transition if she focuses on dishing out to a streaking O'Reilly, Tarpley or power-sub Angela Hucles when under pressure.

When it comes to holding the ball on the attack, the U.S. is still trigger-happy. Natasha Kai's first touch has given her difficulty when she's on the run, especially in a man-to-man system, and Amy Rodriguez has a tendency to rush her passes from the wings. Despite these shortcomings, the Americans have consistently shown they can find new ways to score.

With Abby Wambach out, the U.S. has no choice but to fully commit to Sundhage's system. Don't be surprised if the team rises to the challenge.

U.S. women's schedule
U.S. vs. Norway
Aug. 6
Qinhuangdao, China
7:45 a.m. ET

U.S. vs. Japan
Aug. 9
Qinhuangdao, China
5 a.m. ET

U.S. vs. New Zealand
Aug. 12
Qinhuangdao, China
7:45 a.m. ET

2. Can Kai, Cheney and A-Rod handle the pressure?

Jitters abound, but the three young and relatively inexperienced forwards (by Olympic standards) seem up to the task. Rookies Amy Rodriguez and Lauren Cheney know what it takes to play on the world's stage. Both have participated in the U-20 Women's World Championship.

Kai and Rodriguez have a handful of game winners, and the attacking unit has proved it can score in big matches.

Leave it to Wambach to predict how her successors will do: "I think [Natasha Kai] has a shot at becoming one of the next best goal scorers for this national team. I think she's going to make a huge impact for us this Olympics in Beijing."

A-Rod brings the same youthful abandon on the field as Kai, and an interesting dynamic should emerge from the two strikers who haven't seen much time together in games. "In practices, we seem to work well with each other," Rodriguez said. "Tash brings a lot of excitement and intensity to the game which makes her a lot of fun to play with."

Kai, Cheney and Rodriguez each has a little bit of Wambach in her. Captain Christie Rampone is confident the trio will remedy the offensive gaps: "Abby is great in the air, but so are Tasha Kai and Shannon Boxx."

In addition to Kai's aerial game, A-Rod's speed and Cheney's size and ball control infuse the U.S. offense with a different flavor. If Sundhage plays the team's cards correctly, the combination attack will pose a different challenge for opponents: a three-headed Hydra.

3. Who will step up?

"No one individual has to step up to fill a role. It's going to be a complete team effort," said Rampone.

But this is the Olympics, where athletic glory reigns supreme. Stars always emerge, even in team sports. The U.S. cannot reach the podium on individual heroics alone, but it will need an exceptional performance or two.

Look for Rampone to keep the team organized and poised. Incredibly, the 33-year-old mother is playing the best soccer of her career, and the U.S. defense hasn't looked this good since 2006.

With 100 caps under her belt, Lindsay Tarpley has already scored in the double digits this year, a personal career record for the midfielder. She scored the U.S.'s first goal in the 2004 Olympic gold-medal game against Brazil, and will be looking to repeat the clutch performance in Beijing.

Don't count out Kai, who can absolutely electrify the team (not to mention any crowd), and Lloyd, who has one of the best services in the women's game.

X factor: Life after Abby

"It's like Brazil losing Marta or Germany losing Prinz," admitted Sundhage. "However, when I started here in December we talked about the team. We are well prepared. We will adjust the attack, but I think the team has to respond. There is a great spirit in this team and everyone is looking forward to the games."

In all likelihood, the team's transition will be awkward, given the 11th-hour occurrence of Wambach's injury. Hopefully, the 60 or so minutes the team played without her will be enough to prepare it to face Norway -- the first and toughest team the Americans will play in Group G.

With more than one injured teammate cheering them on from home, and the inaugural season of WPS looming, the U.S. women have everything to play for.

Outlook

The Americans should make it through group play, but the quarterfinals will be the gantlet of the tournament. Two-time World Cup winner Germany and persistent runner-up Brazil may prove to be too much. However, the U.S. women's national team has never failed to medal in the Olympics, and with a 12-1-3 overall record since 1996, history will be on Yanks' side.

Lindsey Dolich is a contributor to ESPN The Magazine and covers the U.S. women's national team for ESPNsoccernet. She can be reached at soccerdols@gmail.com.

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