DRESDEN, Germany – The United States finds itself with a shot at redemption and a chance to establish itself as the new Women's World Cup title favorite on Sunday.
After a demoralizing loss to Sweden in their last match of group play dropped the Americans into a mouthwatering quarterfinal against archrival Brazil, things have taken a dramatic upturn for Pia Sundhage's U.S. side and its chances of emerging victorious.
While Brazil, which dumped the Americans out of the 2007 World Cup with a 4-0 semifinal thrashing, remains a huge challenge, a bunch of circumstances which were out of the USA's control have been nothing but kind.
Saturday was the most extraordinary day of this World Cup so far with England – which beat the USA in a warmup game just over a week ago – crashing out to France on penalty kicks. But the biggest shock of all took place in Wolfsburg when host nation and two-time defending champion Germany was upset by Japan.
The tournament is now wide open for the Americans, who will have a clear path to glory if they can get past the talented Brazilians.
Here are five things to look out for in a last-eight clash that has the pedigree of a final and could go a long way toward deciding the champion.
1. Eyes on the prize
As much as players on both USA and Brazil will claim they are taking it one game at a time, every participant on Sunday will be fully aware of Saturday's remarkable events and their repercussions.
The winner has a date with France in Moenchengladbach on Wednesday and either team would be an overwhelming favorite to advance to the July 17 final. There will be danger in looking ahead, especially considering Brazil, while never having won a World Cup, considers itself the best women's team on the planet.
Sundhage will be determined to ensure that her team is fully focused on events at Rudolf Harbig Stadion. The World Cup can't be won on Sunday, but it can certainly be lost.
Look out for: U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo. If a voice of strength and calm is needed, it could come all the way from the back. Solo has never forgotten being benched in that infamous semifinal four years ago, but she has tried to make up for it since with a string of outstanding performances against Brazil, which has lost four straight to the Americans.
2. Marta's magic
The best women's player in the world produced a performance for the ages in 2007, destroying the USA with a spectacular display of trickery and technique.
Her decision to spend three seasons in Women's Pro Soccer has given the Americans a chance to get a closer look at her, but that doesn't make the task any easier. For all the carefully laid plans, the reality remains that if Marta has one of her best days she is going to be virtually impossible to stop and Brazil could be rocking its way to the semifinals.
Look out for: Marta's pre-game expression. Big-game nerves have affected Marta in the past, most significantly in the 2007 final defeat to Germany. With pressure in Brazil mounting with each failed attempt to win a World Cup or Olympic gold, there is more expectation on the 25-year-old talent than ever. When she is relaxed and smiling, she is usually at her best.
3. Case for the defense
USA's Amy LePeilbet had a nightmarish performance against Sweden, conceding a penalty and deflecting a free kick into her own net. However, the 29-year-old defender, who plays her club soccer with the Boston Breakers, remains one of the finest defenders in women's soccer and will be keen to make amends.
Provided her confidence has not been too badly affected, her impact will be critical if the U.S. is to snuff out the quick and talented Brazil frontline.
Look out for: How LePeilbet starts. She occasionally looked hesitant against Sweden – and paid the price. Sundhage will surely urge her to get stuck in with some crunching early tackles and to get a foothold in the game.
4. Strong reaction
In its last major tournament, the 2008 Olympics, the U.S. lost to a tough Scandinavian opponent before running the table and walking away with the title. Could it happen again?
When the Americans were outfought by Norway in their Olympic opener, doom was predicted by many but their response was spectacular. By the time the squad was standing atop the Beijing podium, that initial blip was long forgotten.
Optimists hope that the Sweden defeat will have a similarly galvanizing effect and motivate the USA to return to the ruthless mindset it has long been feared for.
Look out for: Sundhage's sideline demeanor. She knows there are no more second chances and that her team needs to deliver a vastly improved performance or it will be on the plane home. Expect some more animation from the normally relaxed coach, especially if she feels energy levels are not as high as they should be.
5. Finishing touches
The U.S. has not had any trouble creating chances at this World Cup, but it has had plenty of difficulty in putting them away. Both Abby Wambach and Amy Rodriguez have spurned a series of opportunities and cannot afford such generosity against Brazil.
Wambach, in particular, will bear the Americans' scoring burden. She bagged her first goal of the tournament against Sweden, although it came from a fortunate deflection off her shoulder.
Look out for: Wambach's movement. She has been restricted by an Achilles injury that has bothered her throughout the tournament and for much of the past year. However, Wambach claims she is feeling stronger with every game. If she is finally moving freely, it will be a huge boost for the U.S.
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