BEIJING – A quirk of fate and one of the most surprising results of these Olympics has revived the United States women's soccer team's gold medal hopes.
Heading into its final group game, Team USA was facing the daunting prospect of getting past Brazil, its conqueror in the Women's World Cup last year, and world champion Germany to reach the final. But then Norway, which had ruined the Americans' start to the Beijing Games with a 2-0 opening-night victory, imploded spectacularly against Japan, losing 5-1 and gifting the top spot in Group G to the United States.
Now, what should be a comfortable quarterfinal against Canada awaits, a game unlikely to provide much of a test for the defending Olympic champions.
All of which means we will have to wait for a probable semifinal against host China before we learn anything useful about the state of this U.S. team.
It is tough for any side to cope without its leading scorer and most accomplished player – Abby Wambach's broken left leg in the final Olympic tuneup delivered a bitter blow – but the defeat to Norway was still a rude shock. Coach Pia Sundhage will be praying that result was an aberration rather than an accurate reflection of where the team stands on the international stage.
Based on play in the group stages, this U.S. squad is in a kind of limbo.
On most occasions, the Americans should be too good for everyone except Germany and Brazil, but they would be an underdog if they met either of those powerful sides on even footing. The way the Olympic draw has progressed could work strongly in Team USA's favor, though.
Brazil, which plays Norway, and Germany, which faces Sweden, have tough and tricky quarterfinal matchups. Barring upsets, those two will then face each other in the semis in what would be an intriguing and potentially grueling rematch of the 2007 World Cup final.
As long as the Americans avoid any slip-ups, they could reach next Thursday’s gold medal game still feeling fresh and with confidence restored. Sundhage believes the early setback against Norway may have been a blessing in disguise, as it clarified the team's focus.
"The whole team, and myself, has gained confidence every minute we have been together," she said. "The good part of this road is that we have experienced both sides – winning and losing. That is good going into the quarterfinals, where it's now or never."
Questions were raised about where the U.S. goals would come from without Wambach. Despite the comprehensive 4-0 trouncing of New Zealand, the team still needs to prove it can score against top-level teams.
"We are aware we don't have the goal-scorer," Sundhage said. "But we are still creating scoring chances and we are looking good in the center of midfield."