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Aug 16, 2008

U.S. and Brazil appear to have edge in semifinals

Four teams that have already faced each other in Olympic group play meet again to decide who plays in the gold-medal game. Here's a breakdown of the matchups: U.S. vs. Japan It's pretty clear that after Japan demolished Norway 5-1 in a come-from-behind triumph and then dispatched host China handily with a 2-0 victory that the team is brimming with confidence. That's why, in order to replicate its earlier win over Japan in group play, the U.S. women must in fact put that game aside. A tentative Japanese squad wasted far too many chances to score on that day, while the U.S. only made good on one of its own. Now that Japan is far more assured in both attack and definition, the U.S. cannot afford to be lax on defense. If anything, Japan might have a slight advantage over the U.S. because the game in group play could be used as a scouting report. Japan knows not to let Carli Lloyd have a free crack on goal. She's far too effective, even outside the box (granted, the play that she scored on in the first meeting was a bit of a scramble). Though the U.S. attack is not as elegant as Japan's precise and technical play, the sort of hustle and initiative the U.S. demonstrated in Lloyd's goal, might be the Americans best hope to advance to the final. The U.S. keeps teams guessing when multiple players are unafraid to shoot at the goal.

Women's Olympic schedule
Brazil vs. Germany
Monday
Shanghai, China
6 a.m. ET

U.S. vs. Japan
Monday
Beijing, China
9 a.m. ET

With the absence of Abby Wambach, the U.S. has been missing a traditional advantage on set plays. Despite the edge on corner kicks the team earned versus Canada in its last match, none of those opportunities came to fruition. Against Japan, a number of U.S. players should be looking to make more of an impact on set plays, especially Shannon Boxx and Natasha Kai. Kai might have reclaimed her starting spot on the U.S. roster with her header that became the winning goal versus Canada. U.S. coach Pia Sundhage might try to rely on speed to wear down the Japanese defense in this match. Heather O'Reilly and Amy Rodriguez have pestered defenders all tournament long and could work in that plan. Regardless of who Sundhage decides to go with up front, all of her players have to defend better through the midfield and near the goal, because that's where Japan's midfield maestro Homare Sawa works her magic. The spark plug for the Japanese, Shinobu Ohno, does an excellent job of creating space and chances with her hard-charging runs too. Ultimately, Japan might just be happy to have made it to the medal round of the tournament and it could be a sufficient farewell for Sawa, who is planning to retire. Meanwhile, the U.S. is gunning for gold and probably views anything less than that as a failure. Focusing on that goal pushes the U.S. to do what it must to get past Japan and into the final. Brazil vs. Germany I picked Germany as the top team before the tournament, and part of me wants to remain consistent and hold to that opinion. However, Germany has not been impressive in executing its offense. Its key player, Birgit Prinz, has been uncharacteristically ineffective. What has kept Germany in games has been its rock-solid defensive effort. Nadine Angerer in goal is just as impenetrable a wall as she was during the World Cup, when the team did not concede a goal through the entire tournament. It's impossible to write off a striker with as much experience and skill as Prinz. She could spark in the next game and make a huge difference for her squad. Where Brazil has impressed is exactly in the areas that Germany has fallen short. It might be that advancing out of such a tough group prepared Brazil early on. Though it was shut out against Germany, Brazil maintained enough ball possession and pressure on the Germany goal to limit the opportunities against its own net. Marta, Brazil's star player, hasn't had a superlative tournament by any means. Yet she has become a very effective complementary player as others on the team have stepped up, especially Cristiane and Daniela. Marta pulls defenders to her with her runs, even if her finishing isn't as conclusive as she would like. Waiting for her passes are teammates eager to take advantage of the chances the extra space creates. Because the complete Brazilian women's team only gathers for certain tournaments, the two squads have met only twice in recent years. In the 2007 women's World Cup final, then again in group play earlier in this tournament. In the 2007 match, the Germans were more disciplined and organized. It claimed the title, while a heartbroken Brazil bemoaned lost chances. In its Olympic group play clash, Brazil was far more focused. Brazil made sure that it did not hurt its chances to advance, realizing that a win was not as crucial as avoiding a loss. It was smart strategy and showed team maturation. Third time could be the charm for the Brazilians against Germany, even though it will likely be a difficult match. Brazil has all the pieces in place to win; it just needs to put them together. Such an outcome would set up a U.S. and Brazil final. The Brazilians were the team the U.S. played when it lost Wambach to a broken leg on July 31, and now the Americans are without their star, but in the meantime, Brazilians gained Marta, their star, for the Games. That would be only one of a number of intriguing story lines at play if these two teams do indeed meet again. Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She also writes for soccer365.com and contributes to a blog, Sideline Views. She can be contacted at soccercanales@yahoo.com.

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