BEIJING – The United States women's soccer team has done its fair share of defending during these Olympic Games. Much of it has taken place away from the field of play.
With a history of success to uphold, but without its best player, Abby Wambach, coach Pia Sundhage's side has been pushed onto the back foot by its critics.
The latest accusation – one with serious foundation – is that the Americans have been lucky. If not for a surprise victory by Japan over Norway in the last group game, the U.S. would have likely been knocked out in the quarterfinals by Brazil.
An opening defeat to Norway and a narrow overtime quarterfinal win against Canada have fueled claims that this team is in danger of falling far behind World Cup finalists Germany and Brazil at the summit of the women's game.
However, while Sundhage did not enjoy being quizzed on the good fortune of her team, forward Heather O'Reilly used a modern masterpiece to come up with the most interesting answer offered by any member of the squad.
"I saw a great quote in a book I am reading," O'Reilly said. "It is called 'The Last Lecture.' In there, it said that 'Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.' That is what happened. The opportunity opened up and we took care of our part.
"That's how the cookie crumbles, and it crumbled our way."
The late Randy Pausch, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, wrote the book based on an emotional speech he gave after learning he had terminal pancreatic cancer. Video of his inspirational final lecture became an Internet sensation.
However, not everyone will or should be convinced by O'Reilly's use of Pausch's heart-wrenching philosophy to defend the Americans from claims they are lucky.
Sure, the U.S. took care of business after losing 2-0 to Norway. However, neither a 1-0 victory over Japan, a team it meets again in Monday's semifinals, nor a pounding of New Zealand is particularly worthy of salute.
Sundhage put a predictably positive spin on events so far, but the fact remains that her team has shown little to suggest it is suddenly about to rediscover top form.
"We have had four great games against opponents with different styles," Sundhage said. "It is an advantage for us that we have already played against Japan and won that game."
The absence of Wambach, who broke her leg two weeks before the Olympics, robbed the side of its leading goal scorer. There is no one to adequately fill the void, and six different players have combined to score the team's seven tournament goals.
"Being without Abby created a big void," defender Christie Rampone said. "We realized after the first game how important it is that everyone steps up."
While there has been more urgency and intensity from the Americans in their last three games, they have shown nothing in terms of quality of play that would have Germany or Brazil quaking in their boots.
Japan is a fast-emerging unit and was impressive in its 2-0 quarterfinal win over China. But the Japanese do not have the firepower to seriously trouble the U.S., which should advance to the gold medal game without much difficulty.
But then comes the real test in Germany or Brazil, opponents which no longer have any trepidation about facing the once mighty Americans.
"We set very high standards of excellence for ourselves, and we know there is improvement left in us," O'Reilly said.
They might even need a bit of luck. Or preparation meeting opportunity.
- Pia Sundhage
- Abby Wambach