There was a time when the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team didn’t fear anybody. Undeniably the best team in the world, the U.S. players oozed that confidence every time they stepped onto the field.
That confidence was rattled last August when Japan stunned the United States in the Women’s World Cup championship in Germany, ultimately prevailing on penalty kicks.
In the ensuing matches against Japan, goalkeeper Hope Solo admitted they were intimidated by their new arch-nemesis.
With the Olympics less than a month away, the United States is ready for its send-off match against Canada at Rio Tinto Stadium on Saturday. Solo and her teammates have that best-in-the-world swagger back and don’t fear anyone anymore.
After losing to Japan in March in Portugal, and then settling for a draw in Japan a month later, Solo said everyone just said enough is enough. Both tactically and psychologically, the United States analyzed the root of the fear and went about changing it.
On June 18 in Sweden, everything came full circle as the United States dominated Japan with a 4-1 victory.
“It was time to take our name back and play our style again. We started to fear Japan. I don’t think that’s going to happen anymore,” said Solo.
Even though a potential Olympic showdown with Japan is in the back of the players' minds, for Saturday they’re focused entirely on Canada and fine-tuning their game before their first Olympic match against France on July 25.
More than 15,000 tickets have already been sold for the noon kickoff, and Solo isn’t surprised one bit by the great response from Utah soccer fans.
“We’ve had an amazing fan base since we came back from the World Cup. It’s inspiring because I truly believe the sport is coming into its own, the women’s game is coming into its own. We’re riding a wave after the World Cup. We’ve had great support in every city we’ve played in. I expect no less in Sandy, Utah,” said Solo.
The women have only played two games on U.S. soil this year, but 20,677 watched them eat New Zealand in Frisco, Texas, on Feb. 11, and then a sell-out crowd of 18,573 watched them defeat China in Chester, Pa., on May 27.
Midfielder Lauren Cheney is excited to give fans something to cheer about.
“We want to give them a good show and we want to give them a taste of what they’re going to get in the Olympics. We bring it every game, and I’m excited for them to witness that,” said Cheney.
The United States is 5-0-1 over its past six matches and 13-1-1 in 2012. Alex Morgan and Abby Wambach are on a goal-scoring tear this year with 17 and 13 goals respectively.
With two in-form strikers and Morgan’s speed up top, coach Pia Sundhage said her team has a tendency to play very direct soccer. Against Canada she wants to see her players vary the attack.
“Abby and Alex have been playing really well and we right now have a tendency to play very direct and we’ve been very successful with that. At times there will be teams that shut us down, so we need to use the wings,” said Sundhage.
Against Canada and then throughout the Olympics, Sundhage wants to see wide midfielders Tobin Heath, Megan Rapinoe, Amy Rodriguez and Heather O’Reilly get more involved in the attack.
“Against some teams we’re going to be able to play direct and a little bit simpler style. But against the best teams we’re not going to be able to lop it over the top and let Alex go get it,” said Rapinoe.
Today’s match is the third appearance for the U.S. women in Utah. In 2003, it beat Ireland 5-0 in a friendly match at Rice-Eccles Stadium, and then in March 2010, it beat Mexico 1-0 at Rio Tinto Stadium in a snowstorm.
Wambach scored the lone goal in that match, and heading into the Olympics the 32-year-old striker is the second-leading goal scorer in U.S. soccer history with 138 goals. She’s 20 goals behind the all-time record held by Mia Hamm.
The veteran said a win against Canada would be a great way to build confidence heading over to the London Olympics.
“It’s important to win any game you strap your boots on for, builds confidence especially leading into the big tournament,” she said. “We believe we’re one of the best teams in the world. In order to be one of the best teams in the world, you have to prove it every time you step on the pitch.”