After what they hope was an early purging of nerves and slip-ups in front of a strong crowd of 17,673 in Qinhuangdao, China, the United States women find themselves in unfamiliar terrain: down a game in group play with a point total of nil.
Never before have the U.S. women lost a game in the group stage of an Olympics. That means that for nearly 20 years of international women's soccer, the U.S. team has, for lack of a better phrase, owned the yard. Only five years ago did other nascent teams finally start to fight back, throwing in a sucker punch or two. Perhaps the U.S. is due for a taste of its own medicine -- which is exactly what it got on Wednesday in a 2-0 loss to Norway, two days before the Olympic ceremonies.
Better yet, guess which country dealt the only other loss to the United States in its nearly blemish-free Olympic history? Norway. (See: 2000 Olympics, gold-medal match -- Norway wins 3-2 in overtime.)
Now, the American women find themselves at a crossroads.
The United States can forge ahead and wipe the slate clean against Japan, a quick, well-organized team that's capable of giving opponents a palpitation or two. Or, the U.S. can let the doubts creep in.
"We have a choice right now," coach Pia Sundhage said via an U.S. Soccer press release. "You can imagine [what it can do to a team] to give up two early goals playing in your first game. What is very important is to keep our style, and that is something we as coaches will emphasize. We can look at bad things, and we will adjust but also look at good parts in the game where we created chances, and where we kept possession and played pretty good soccer. That is the choice that we have, and we will look at positive things."
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|U.S. vs. Japan
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U.S. vs. New Zealand
If Sundhage has only one philosophy down pat, it's the optimistic "My glass is always half-full." Even if the strategy might have lulled the U.S. women into a comfort zone they should not have been in for an opening match, confidence is the panacea to get the Americans back on track.
"In the locker room afterwards, we talked a lot about communication and body language," Sundhage said via e-mail. "Today, they are ready to go and can't wait to play against Japan."
The U.S. faced Japan in the 2004 Athens Olympics quarterfinal, a closely contested match that the Americans won, 2-1. After Japan advanced beyond group play in Athens, fans bestowed the sobriquet "Nadeshiko" on the women's team; yet, the aggressive, incisive style with which the Japanese play doesn't exactly call to mind "the stately ladies of the samurai era" the classy nickname implies.
The match against Japan might not share quite the storied track record as U.S.-Norway; the Nadeshiko have secured only three ties in a heavily skewed 17-0-3 record that favors the Americans. Yet the program is arguably on the ups under new coach Norio Sasaki, who took over in early 2008, then announced an ambitious goal to reach the final four in China.
Japan came away with a 2-2 draw against New Zealand on Wednesday, staging an impressive comeback late in the 72nd minute after dropping two consecutive goals against the Ferns.
"Japan is very skillful and fast with great technique, and they find combinations, so we have to stay sharp in defending," said Sundhage via an U.S. Soccer press release, who has compiled inside knowledge of soccer programs in Asia. Sundhage's stint as an assistant coach for the Chinese women's national team in 2007 might prove to be especially beneficial in deciphering Japan's game-time strategy.
"I watched Japan's game against New Zealand," Sundhage said via e-mail. "They didn't have a good start and they had a hard time playing under pressure, but they came back well in the second half.
"When they have a lot of time and space, they knock it around pretty nicely in the attacking third. They don't hit too many crosses, but they are tricky, technical players who play one-two touch and try to find that shooting chance. Over the 90 minutes, they played poorly and also very good, so in our match, a lot depends on how we play and how we start the game."
Homare Sawa, the captain of the Japanese women's team, is Japan's version of the U.S.' Kristine Lilly. Christie Rampone will have to keep a tight leash on Sawa's run of the field, else she could expedite some major breakdowns in the U.S.' ranks.
Midfielder Aya Miyama also is an exceptionally good playmaker who's responsible for some of Japan's best action on goal against New Zealand. The Nadeshiko midfield also does well to sync with the defense, which tends to hold a rather high flat-back line. Americans Natasha Kai and Amy Rodriguez may have difficulty navigating the Japanese barrier, but if the strikers learn to better gauge their speed, Japan's side could suffer.
Don't be too surprised if Hope Solo becomes the voice in the back alongside Rampone. Despite everything Solo has been through in the past year, she's grown tremendously -- and her attitude reflects it: "I think we are going to come back stronger. I'm not just saying that to say it," Solo said via an U.S. Soccer press release. "You felt the energy out there after the [Norway] game. No one hung their heads."
Solo's quick reflexes should come especially handy against Japan's quick feet and unpredictable shooting patterns.
Japan will try to capitalize on the U.S.' recovery period, especially banking on the newfound confidence the team has built upon from recent successes. Not only did Japan shock host China PR and Korea DPR in February 2008 to claim the East Asian Football Federation championships for the first time in history, the ladies in blue also thrashed the Australian side for 3-0 Olympic warm-up.
Keys for the United States will be mobility and space. The Japanese women will have a difficult time keeping up with the Americans' extended, high-energy running game, especially in oppressive conditions. The Yanks also need to better stagger the wings and central midfielders so they provide more depth for curving runs and oncoming balls.
After the game, Sundhage acknowledged via e-mail she might change the lineup for Saturday's match, but emphasized she wanted to give the starting personnel a second chance. It would be an intelligent move on Sundhage's part if she were to break out playmaker Aly Wagner, possibly even starting her in place of Carli Lloyd to give the U.S.' midfield a different look. Defender Lori Chalupny, who took a hit to the jaw after a collision with Hope Solo, is currently day-to-day. Chalupny suffered from blurred vision and dizziness and had to be replaced by Stephanie Cox. If Chalupny is ruled out for Saturday's game, Sundhage should plug in Stanford University's Rachel Buehler, a capable, strong defender with surprising speed.
One of the biggest factors that needs to kick in against Japan is veteran leadership. Shannon Boxx, Christie Rampone, Kate Markgraf and Lindsay Tarpley must take it upon themselves to set the tone for the rest of the team after the first whistle.
"Veterans that have been in the Olympics before have seen [what] it takes [to win] more than just one game," Boxx said via an U.S. Soccer press release. "We've seen you can lose just one game and come back and move on. We've told everybody that we are going to come back stronger against Japan, and we know we have to win."
The United States may regurgitate the honorable Olympic mantra of "faster, higher, stronger" once the Games officially begin, but when the U.S. women play Japan a day later on Aug. 9, they'll have to do one better: Torch the competition.
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 email@example.com.