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They seek a closing kick

2012 LONDON OLYMPICS :: 2 days to summer games

U.S. women begin quest to reach gold-medal game, but path is strewn with elite teams

July 25, 2012|Kevin Baxter
  • U.S. women's soccer team players (from left to right) Christie Rampone, Abby Wambach, Sydney Leroux and Lauren Cheney take part in a team training session in Glasgow, Scotland on Thursday.
U.S. women's soccer team players (from left to right) Christie Rampone,… (Jeff J. Mitchell / Getty…)

GLASGOW, SCOTLAND — Watching the Olympic Games on television while growing up outside Chicago, Amy LePeilbet was transfixed by the pomp and pageantry of the opening ceremony.

"It's such an exciting time," she said. "It really gets everyone in the spirit."

So she was understandably disappointed to learn that, even after making her first Olympic team this summer, she'll still have to watch the ceremony on television because she and the rest of the U.S. women's soccer team are in Scotland, more than 400 miles from London's Olympic Park.

There is a consolation prize, though, since LePeilbet and her teammates will participate in another kind of opening ceremony Wednesday, helping start the competitive part of the Olympics when they play France at Glasgow's historic Hampden Park.

"It's super exciting," she said. "I guess we kick it off."

Actually the home team, Great Britain, gets that honor, beginning its match with New Zealand in Wales at 8 a.m. PDT, an hour before the U.S. takes the field. But that's still more than 48 hours before the official opening ceremony.

Because of the number of teams competing in the soccer tournament and the need for off days between matches, this will be the fourth consecutive Olympics in which the U.S. women played a match before the Games had officially opened. And it will be the third time they missed the opening ceremony.

"I would love to be in the opening ceremonies. I've never experienced it," said two-time Olympian Lauren Cheney. "[But] I can't say I'm, like, sad about missing out."

What would make her sad, however, is not making it to the closing ceremony. And there's a chance the U.S. women won't get to London and the Olympic village unless they make it to the gold-medal match, which will be four days before the Games end.

"That's a goal of ours," Cheney said. "We want to go to London. We want to feel that."

It won't be easy. Because although the U.S. has made it to the final of each of the previous four Olympic soccer tournaments -- winning three of them --it has never faced a field as deep as this year's, which includes eight of the world's top nine teams.

One of those teams is France, which has won 17 consecutive matches since losing the third-place game at last summer's World Cup. The French have outscored their opponents, 61-4, over that span and shut out their last seven foes, including a 2-0 win over World Cup champion Japan six days ago.

"I like starting off with a tough opponent," Cheney said of France, whose roster includes 11 players from Lyon, winner of the last two UEFA women's Champions League tournaments.

"Coming into a tournament, playing a team of their caliber, sets the tone for us," she continued. "If we go out and we're able to compete with them, that's a confidence-builder. You have a rough start, then we're able to see where we need to go from there. So starting off with a team like France is perfect for us."

Aside from France, ranked sixth in the latest FIFA rankings, the U.S. will also face eighth-ranked North Korea in group play. And should they advance to the knockout rounds, the top-ranked Americans will probably be joined there by three other top-five teams -- Brazil (led by Marta, a five-time FIFA world player of the year); Sweden (the third-place finisher in the last World Cup) and Japan (led by current world player of the year Homare Sawa).

But neither Pia Sundhage, who coached the U.S. to a gold medal four years ago, nor her players are looking beyond Wednesday.

"We've been really focused on our first game," said LePeilbet, a 30-year-old defender who has 70 caps with the national team. "It's one game at a time for us. You can't look past one. Every game is going to be a good battle and it's going to take our best to win."

And although Sundhage can call on the tournament's most dynamic duo of forwards in Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan as well as the world's best goalkeeper in Hope Solo, she said Tuesday that her team's depth is its real strength.

"What it comes down to is to use all 18 players," Sundhage said. "We have a lot of options. So players coming off of the bench, they will change the game a little bit. They know their role. They embrace their role.

"Everybody wants to be in the starting lineup, of course. But when they get in they're ready. I truly believe that whoever is coming in, they will be game-winners."

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kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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