Olympic Preview And Predictions: Has It Been That Long Since Japan’s Win Already?

Was it already more than a year ago that we watched in delight as the United States women’s soccer team pulled off a comeback for the ages against Brazil, and then in horror as Japan did the same just a week later to capture an unexpected (and its first) World Cup.

Of course, it’s a little hard to be horrified when speaking of Japan, what a great story and a class act in a country that was not far removed from a devastating tsunami.

For whatever reason, the United States has continued to just about own the Olympic tournament, even if they haven’t won a World Cup since 1999, the U.S. has won every gold medal but one (2000) the Olympics have had to offer, posting a dominant 18-2-3 all-time mark.

Both losses at the Olympics came to Norway, including the opener of the 2008 Games in Beijing, but the Norwegians are nowhere to be found in Britain, and they’re not alone. The entertaining cast of 16 characters we had last summer in Germany has been cut to 12 for London (of course, most soccer matches won’t be in London, but I digress), and sadly we’ll be missing the Germans themselves, the aforementioned Norwegians, up-and-coming Australia, and African sides Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea, neither of whom embarrassed themselves in Germany (Nigeria, especially, they beat Canada, and gave France fits).

But even without those teams, when it comes to the medal rounds, there are plenty of nominees to dethrone the Americans, starting with World Champion Japan. If you’re like me, you forgot (at least a little), but the Japanese were beginning to knock on the door way back in China four years ago. A new coach named Norio Sasaki had them playing decent soccer, but they were derailed twice by those darn Americans, 1-0 in the group stage and 4-2 in the semifinals after grabbing an early lead (Japan also played the U.S. tough in the 2004 quarterfinals, losing 2-1 on an Abby Wambach goal).

Then, of course, there are the French, who on paper, might be the favorites, running roughshod over just about everyone (including Japan) in friendlies, and seemingly just getting better since last summer, where they were pretty darn good. They haven’t knocked off the United States yet, but that didn’t stop Japan last year, did it?

Those seem to be the three heavy favorites. Great Britain, as the hosts, could be a factor, but I find it somewhat amazing that countries scour the world for players that will be eligible to play for them, and then Scotland and England can barely get along to combine to make a team for the Olympics, for crying out loud. But I don’t live there, so who am I to talk?

Sweden can’t be counted out, Brazil has Marta, and Canada has Christine Sinclair. So, really, if all goes according to plan, the entire knockout stage will be to eliminate one of: New Zealand, Cameroon, Colombia, South Africa, or North Korea.

So much for drama there, huh?

But I’ve been invited (as far as you know) back to the AWK Summer Timeshare, so here I am. The place looks a little different, but I’m happy to be here. Coverage will be a little tougher at the Olympics than it was at the World Cup. As Hope Solo has told us (and some others), there is plenty of other action going on around England, which means that all 12 teams will play on the same day in all three group match days. But we’ll do our best.

And have fun doing it.

A few times after the completion of games of the recent men’s Euros, Michael Cox of the fantastic Zonal Marking website simply said, “Small margins.” Like Spain beating Portugal in penalty kicks, for instance. With the real start of the tournament not until the quarterfinals, a team getting some breaks for three straight games may be able to beat the odds and take home an unlikely gold medal. But, as the Spain men have proven repeatedly, maybe not.

Here are my quick predictions:

GROUP E

Quick preview (in predicted order of finish):

Well, Brazil isn’t easier to figure out this year than they were last. Gone is Kleiton Lima, and presumably with him went the evil sweeper. Jorge Barcellos has tried to bring in a more organized defensive system, but as is always the problem with Brazil it seems, how much time has he actually had with his team in the last few months? The personnel is nearly identical to last year, but in warm-up matches they looked more dependent on Marta than ever, and their defense was not sharp. Brazil has never won a major tournament, and has drawn a fairly easy group. Obviously, they’re still dangerous and a semifinal game against the United States or France will be a tough out for either. But, short of a Marta show of epic proportions, it’s hard to see Brazil winning that game.

Let’s be honest, the fact that Julie Fleeting – unofficially the sixth-leading international goal scorer of all-time (behind Mia Hamm, Abby Wambach, Christine Sinclair, Birgit Prinz, and Kristine Lilly) – is not playing for Great Britain is ridiculous. But you didn’t come here to read about silly British politics, the England team did fairly well at the World Cup and was that “small margin” from knocking off France in the quarterfinals. Alas, it didn’t happen and Great Britain is back with the “others” when you talk about favorites to win. And who knows how healthy Kelly Smith is? But the backline is experienced as is Karen Bardsley in goal, and even second place in this group gets a decent draw in the quarterfinals. Add the home crowd behind them, and who knows?

With eight teams advancing, it may be all about goal differential for the third place teams, which seems to put New Zealand in a pretty good spot to get through. The Ferns gave Japan all it could handle in the World Cup opener last year, and despite grabbing only one point, finished with a -2 differential, which bodes well here. Ali Riley survived an injury scare in a warm-up game with Canada. Tony Readings, a British coach who’s done a good job, will be keen to see his team do well in his homeland. You may remember Amber Hearn and Hayley Moorwood from the World Cup, and they have the potential to pull a shocker or two, hopefully not against the United States, a potential quarterfinal opponent.

I’ll miss Nigeria, but Cameroon beat them fair and square in qualifying, over two legs no less (in penalties). And I’ve been a big Cameroon men’s fan since back in the day, so I can make some room for the Indomitable Lionesses (with probably the best uniforms in the tournament, too). While we’ll miss Genoveva Anonma of Equitorial Guinea, keep an eye on Madeleine Ngono Mani, one of the best players in Africa in the last few years.  Alas, while I congratulate them for qualifying for their first major tournament, and it’s good to see some different faces out of Africa, it will be tough for Cameroon to pick up any points.

Random fact:

Despite the fact they’ve had so much trouble sorting out the nations in Great Britain, the hosts will play their first two games in Wales (Cardiff), and have a good chance to play their quarterfinal game there. Silliness.

Player to watch:

Madeleine Ngono Mani, Cameroon – I’m very interested to see what the 28-year-old brings to the table here. It may be difficult given the gap in talent between the teams she’ll be facing, but it’s always nice to see a new face, and hopefully she’ll entertain us the way Anonma did last year at the World Cup.

Game to watch:

New Zealand vs. Brazil, July 28 – As we saw in the World Cup, Brazil does have a tendency to play to the level of its competition, and after an opener against Cameroon, this may be a chance for New Zealand to catch Brazil napping a bit. Although you wake up Marta at your own peril. Four points will probably get you through, so the Ferns will be looking for one against Brazil or Great Britain.

Likely end of the road:

Brazil – Semifinals (loss to United States)

Great Britain – Finals (loss to United States)

New Zealand – Quarterfinals (loss to United States)

Cameroon – Group stage

 

GROUP F

Quick preview (in order of predicted finish):

It may border on sacrilege to say at this point, but there was plenty of luck involved in the run of Japan to the World Cup title last year. New Zealand nearly stole a point from them and England beat them fairly comfortably in the group stages before they knocked off Germany, Sweden, and obviously the United States in succession. They deserve all the credit in the world for that, but they’ve lost three times this calendar year (France, United States, Germany), and – most importantly – got a fairly brutal draw. If they win the group, they’ll likely face the U.S. or France in the quarterfinals, and that could be it. Or, I might just be bitter that I didn’t pick them to get out of the group stages last year.

Sweden just seems like the team that is always a tough out, but never actually wins anything. They came closest in the 2003 World Cup when they went to the final, but have never medaled in the Olympics. Still, they throw their usual veteran squad out there led by Lotta Schelin, who seems like she got better playing with Lyon (shocking, I know). It was soon forgotten, but Sweden beat France in the third place game of the World Cup, too. Although experienced, it’s actually a fairly young squad, with players like Antonia Goransson making their mark of late. With a healthy Caroline Seger in tow, why can’t Sweden win gold?

It’s been a struggle for John Herdman since taking over Canada last year. He’s still got Christine Sinclair, and that’s great, but Canada doesn’t have anyone to help them hold the ball and were summarily exposed last year in Germany, even by Nigeria of all people. Herdman has tried to mix things up, giving Sophie Schmidt more of a creative role, but against Japan and Sweden, Canada is probably not going to have much possession, unfortunately. Luckily for them, if they can steal a point and beat up on South Africa, they should be through. But after that?

Speaking of South Africa, they somehow didn’t have to face Nigeria, Cameroon, or Equatorial Guinea (banned) to qualify, and it would have probably been a better story to see Ethiopia (whom South Africa beat to make it to London), but at least it’s someone new. South Africa did get a draw with New Zealand in a friendly, but obviously may be in a little over their heads. Janine van Wyk’s new Olympic tattoos have been the talk of camp, she also may be South Africa’s best player.

Random fact:

Three quick ones: Japan has never medaled at the Olympics. Sweden matched its worst loss in history when it was beaten 4-0 by the United States back in March at the Algarve Cup. And Canada is playing in only its second Olympic games (2008).

Player to watch:

Lotta Schelin, Sweden – With apologies to Marta and some girl named Morgan, Schelin might be the hottest striker in the world, and may be able to have a big tournament here. If she does, Sweden could find themselves surprising many on the way to a gold medal.

Game to watch:

Japan vs. Canada, July 25 – A tricky opener for the world champions, but one in which they should enjoy a pretty significant possession advantage. But if Japan can’t finish, or if Canada stays very organized, or both, can Christine Sinclair beat them on the counter and do enough to steal an invaluable point for Canada? Sure.

Likely end of the road:

Japan – Quarterfinals (loss to France)

Sweden – Quarterfinals (loss to Great Britain)

Canada – Quarterfinals (loss to Brazil)

South Africa – Group Stage

 

GROUP G

Quick preview (in predicted order of finish):

Look, I have plenty of questions about the United States defense. Kelley O’Hara is a converted outside back, obviously. Christie Rampone and Rachel Buehler have shown momentary lapses that teams like France and Japan could punish them for. But at the end of the day, I don’t see anyone stopping Alex Morgan and Abby Wambach in the form they’re in right now. And on set pieces? Good luck. They won’t play as beautifully as France or Japan, but in the end, they’ll score more goals and take home their fifth gold medal in six Olympiads.

The France vs. United States matchup to kick things off on Wednesday will be a great game, but I don’t think it will define France in this Olympics. They should advance easily anyway. If you asked me who the best team in the tournament is, I’d probably answer France. Like Spain on the men’s side, there are no weak spots and their ability to keep the ball is unmatched in the women’s game. But when it comes to the knockout stages, they’ll need a break or two. And it may not quite be their time to get them yet.

You know who I feel worst for? Whomever is announcing the first North Korea game. There is potential there, they edged Australia out for the second spot from Asia and went unbeaten in five games in Olympic qualifying. Surely, they’ll battle hard and make things difficult for France and the U.S. But I don’t see them getting any points from either of them, meaning that they will likely be left out of the knockout stages unless they can steal a point from somewhere.

Even the Colombia brass have admitted they might not be properly prepared for the Olympics due to the lack of matches they were able to schedule. A look the roster reminds me of what some of the lower WPSL Elite teams were up against this season, a bunch of college kids (there are several on the Colombia roster) against professional players. In this case, it might be even worse, especially against the United States and France, which should have their way with them. Colombia didn’t score in last year’s World Cup, so they have that to shoot for.

Random fact:

Three of these teams (United States, Colombia, North Korea) were in the same group in Germany. The United States is 12-0-1 lifetime against France. Might they meet twice in the next couple of weeks?

Player to watch:

Marie-Laure Delie, France – Delie did not have a great World Cup last summer and actually got subbed out a couple of times. But she’s now a year older and a year wiser, and may be the difference between France winning the gold or not. They need her to give them what Wambach does for the United States, someone who can finish after all the possession they’re sure to have in almost every game in this tournament.

Game to watch:

United States vs. France, July 25 – As I’ve said a couple of times here, the game really doesn’t mean all that much in the grand scheme of things, but it should be fun to watch. I shouldn’t say it means nothing, it’s a much easier draw on paper to win Group G than to finish second, but if the World Cup proved anything, it’s that you just get to the quarterfinals and then it all starts from there.

Likely end of the road:

United States – CHAMPION

France – Semifinals (loss to Great Britain)

North Korea – Group Stage

Colombia – Group Stage

 

2 thoughts on “Olympic Preview And Predictions: Has It Been That Long Since Japan’s Win Already?

  1. WNTfan

    So you have USA gold, GB silver? That is very flattering for GB. I’d say France for silver and Sweden for bronze, though those 2 can flip. It would be nice for GB to get something but it’d be a miracle. Who knows, we could get a 2009 repeat.

    Reply

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