The U.S. women's soccer world took seven days to fully emerge from the dark side of the soccer ball, after a week in the shadow of Aug. 5's 2-0 loss to Norway.
The U.S. women's Olympic soccer team progressed exponentially; first the Norway disaster, then a mediocre win over Japan, and finally, lighting up a spunky New Zealand side for four goals.
There were major doubts that Swede Pia Sundhage would pull the strings for a team left reeling after the loss of superlative striker Abby Wambach. But, somehow, Sundhage delicately guided a vulnerable U.S. team, inspiring what seemed like a miraculous comeback.
"You look at the first 15 minutes of that game [against Norway] to the last 15 minutes of this game and many things have happened," said Sundhage in a U.S. Soccer press release."The whole team, and myself, has gained confidence every minute we've been together. The good part of this road is that we have experienced both sides. Losing and winning, and that's good going into the quarterfinals where it's now or never."
With the knockout stage up next, the U.S. hopes to keep the momentum against perennial North American rival Canada. This will be the 44th meeting between two teams, leapfrogging the total number of U.S.-Norway showdowns for the first time in 2008. The U.S. leads with a 37-3-3 record dating back to 1986, but the Canucks are primed to play catch-up with the Olympic quarterfinals on the horizon.
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|U.S. vs. Canada
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The Americans are undefeated against the Canadians this year, but each game has been a different story. In the last matchup held on June 21, the U.S. women scored a goal in stoppage time to beat Canada for the Peace Queen Cup title in South Korea. On May 10 at RFK stadium in Washington, D.C., the United States bullied its way to a 6-0 victory against a full Canadian squad. But when it came to games that mattered, Canada played a fierce CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament -- taking the U.S. to overtime and penalty kicks, which the Americans won, 6-5.
Despite the Canada's inconsistency in the past, the team has performed admirably under coach Even Pellerud in its first ever women's Olympic soccer tournament. Unlike debutante New Zealand, Canada has shown it can hang with Olympic contenders, earning a draw against China in Group E and nearly beating a strong Swedish side in a 2-1 loss.
"It's going to be a battle. We've played them so many times," said defender Lori Chalupny in a U.S. Soccer press release. "We have a good feeling for them and familiarity with them, but it's always a battle. The last couple of games have been one-goal games, so we'll be prepared and excited for that game."
Canada looms a bit larger without the American's tallest field player (Wambach), and forward Amy Rodriguez might have a difficult time securing balls from the air against Canada's back line. If the U.S. can't find a way to hit Rodriguez's feet consistently, forwards Lauren Cheney and Natasha Kai could be called on to perform.
Regardless, the Canadian defense looked disorganized against Sweden, often shifting over entirely to the strong side, leaving massive gaps that players like Lori Chalupny, Heather O'Reilly and Lindsay Tarpley can swoop in and score.
Flank defenders Rhian Wilkinson and Martina Franko have been caught flat-footed against quicker opponents, and the entire Canadian roster seems to favor full-tilt slide tackling. All the United States needs to do is play patiently and force the Canucks to commit early -- a task that has not come easily for the U.S. women.
As for containing the Canadian offense, the United States will have to rely on the all-around speed of Heather Mitts, captain Christie Rampone, Kate Markgraf and Chalupny to win 50-50 balls. After reaching her 200th cap in the New Zealand game, Rampone has done well to lead a back line that has seen a couple shakeups in the last two games, with Chalupny and Markgraf shuffling in and out of the starting lineup due to minor health issues.
"[Winning the group] shows how much spirit we have. We bounced back and it's exciting because we still haven't played our best soccer," acknowledged Rampone. "We've been up against the wall and we are ready for it now."
Captain Christine Sinclair, forward Melissa Tancredi and midfielder Kara Lang are the staples that hold the Canadian attack together. The United States needs to work on closing down defenders, especially in its own half, to prevent lofted balls from finding Canada's three towers of Sinclair, Tancredi and Lang.
The Yanks must carry the opportunistic finishing that was on display against New Zealand into the quarterfinals. The U.S. women have not yet proved they can hoist themselves up by their boot straps if they are down a goal first. Other than Norway, the only other team to score first against the U.S. in 2008 was Australia, in an international friendly; the U.S. came back to win 5-4 after an own-goal was scored.
The urgency to get the first tally will be important. Despite assurances from the U.S. camp, the newfound confidence of the Americans is still fragile -- even against familiar opponent Canada.
"I respect every team in this tournament. It would be arrogant for me to say one team is harder than another. The Canada match will be very hard, but still it is a challenging and a fun game," Sundhage told USSoccer.com.
If the midfield dictates the offensive tempo, the United States should advance to the semifinals. The team knows better than to waste a hard-fought comeback.
The Americans only have three games between them and the gold medal podium, and the path looks far more transparent than it did eight days ago.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.