The eyes of the sporting world will be on London this week as the Olympic Games officially open on Friday.
However, Indiana’s Lauren Cheney and her U.S. women’s soccer squad teammates won’t be waiting around for any ceremonies before kicking off their quest for gold.
They’ll be taking on France in the first of their Group G games at Hampden Park in Glasgow, Scotland tomorrow (Wednesday,12 p.m. EDT) — some 400 miles away from London. The match will be broadcast live on the NBC Sports Network and the NBC Olympic Soccer Channel.
The Americans, who won gold in Beijing four years ago, also captured the title in 1996 (Atlanta) and 2004 (Athens). They are generally 2-1 favorites with British bookmakers to win a fourth Olympic title, just ahead of main challengers Brazil (5-2) and Japan (5-1).
Indianapolis-born Cheney, who scored 118 goals during her four years with Ben Davis HS, made it into the Beijing squad in 2008 as a last-minute replacement for super-striker Abby Wambach, who withdrew with a broken leg.
After bagging a gold medal while seeing action in the final three games of the tournament, the versatile 24-year-old went on to have a breakout World Cup last year.
She scored two goals while playing in what was an unfamiliar role for her at left midfield. Then, when moved up front alongside Wambach for the final, she unluckily sustained an ankle injury in the first minute on a play from which she almost scored.
Cheney battled on but had to be replaced at half-time in a game that saw Japan win in a dramatic penalty shootout.
Coming into the tournament, the United States has beaten Canada (2-1), Sweden (3-1) and, most notably, Japan (4-1).
Cheney said the victory over World Cup holders Japan in particular has given the side a great boost going into the tournament.
“I think going forward we know can beat them,” she said in a press conference after the game. “They were our nemesis in the World Cup and hopefully this will just build our confidence for the Olympics.”
But first the women must tackle the French, who they faced in last year’s World Cup semifinal, and they are likely to provide the toughest challenge in the group stages despite it being Les Bleus’ first Olympics.
They will then take on Colombia, also at Hampden Park, on Saturday (12 p.m. EDT) before travelling to Old Trafford, home of Manchester United, to play North Korea next Tuesday, July 31 (12.15 pm. EDT).
U.S. head coach Pia Sundhage, who spoke to media via a teleconference call in Glasgow at the weekend, said players like Cheney give the U.S. numerous options, depending on the opposition.
“I think we have different personalities and players like Cheney that can read the game well and play in different positions,” she said.
“What I am really happy about is if you look at the backs we do have different options and that makes coaching so fun. With those kinds of options it’s a little bit about the individual player but also the relationship between who she is playing with and this team can play well together. So I’m really excited about the different starting lineups that we could have going forward.”
The roster includes 11 players from Beijing, including 36-year old captain Christie Rampone, who is playing in her fourth Olympics, as well as Shannon Boxx, Heather O’Reilly and Heather Mitts, who are participating in their third Games.
At the other end of the spectrum there’s 22-year-old striker Sydney Leroux, who is the only player on the team who didn’t play a part in last year’s World Cup journey.
Another Indianapolis native, Lori Lindsey, is one of four replacement players who have trained and traveled with the 18-player squad. The Pike HS graduate was part of last year’s World Cup team.
Goalkeeper Hope Solo said during the weekend’s teleconference that every team has to have a balance between youth players and veterans, but added that experience breeds a veteran outlook.
“You have someone like Lauren Cheney; people think that she’s probably the youth of the team but she’s actually a pretty experienced player now after playing a ton of minutes and being a crucial player last year for us in the World Cup,” she said. “So if you want to go by veterans, which to me means age and how long they’ve been on the team, or you want to go by experience, whatever it is every championship team needs to have a perfect balance.”
With Women’s Professional Soccer announcing in May that it was folding after three seasons, Wambach, who has scored 138 goals for the U.S., made it clear what their “number one priority” is.
“First and foremost our whole national team has been working tirelessly this year to hopefully bring home this gold medal so that we can solidify a league in the United States for us,” she said.
The best eight teams qualify for the quarterfinals, with all four matchups being staged on August 3. The semifinals will take place on August 6, with the final being held at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, the capital city of Wales, on August 9.
Meanwhile, on the men’s side, there is no U.S. participation following the failure of the team to qualify.
Mexico and Honduras will represent the CONCACAF at the 16-team tournament, which is an Under-23 competition, with three overage players allowed per squad.
Favorites are Brazil — which has never won an Olympics —Spain, Uruguay, Great Britain and the aforementioned Mexicans.