SHENYANG, China -- The chances of the U.S. women's soccer team winning its group (and avoiding a quarterfinal clash with Brazil) were so unlikely that on Tuesday, forward Amy Rodriguez's parents canceled their hotel reservations for Shanghai later in the week.
Shanghai is the destination of the Group G winner, but what was the likelihood that the U.S. could pull it off by: a) beating New Zealand on Tuesday; b) having undefeated Norway somehow lose to Japan and c) making up a killer goal-difference margin that had stuck the U.S. at minus-1 and Norway at plus-3?
Consider it done. In one of the wilder group-stage finales that you'll ever see, the U.S. smoked the Kiwis 4-0 here at the exact same time Japan was erasing a 1-0 deficit to obliterate Norway 5-1 in Shanghai. (Rodriguez helped throw her parents' own travel plans into disarray by scoring the U.S.' second goal.)
The result was monumental for the U.S. women, who by winning the group, can now reach the gold-medal game without having to meet the world's other two top teams: Brazil (in the quarterfinals) and Germany (in a likely semifinal).
Instead, the Americans will face familiar foe Canada on Friday in Shanghai with a possible semifinal showdown against host China on Monday in Beijing. (You think that one would draw a few vocal fans?) Those won't be easy games for the U.S., but they'd be a lot more appealing than a Brazil-Germany double-whammy.
This was one of those nights when it would have been helpful to have real-time group standings on your TV screen (or, for that matter, in the spaceship-like Shenyang Olympic Stadium). Not even at halftime against New Zealand did the U.S. appear likely to win Group G. But in a crazy five-minute stretch early in the second half, Japan scored twice against Norway and midfielder Lindsay Tarpley put the U.S. in first place for good with a strike to make it 3-0.
Oddly, Tarpley was unaware of her goal's significance at the time. "I had no idea until after the game," she said.
The U.S. coaches were keeping close tabs on the Japan-Norway score but decided not to tell the players on the field, the better to prevent the team from taking its foot off the gas. And sure enough, Angela Hucles scored for the U.S. four minutes after Tarpley to give the Yanks some insurance.
Not that the American players were lacking curiosity about what was taking place in Shanghai. "I kept looking over to the bench to try to see what was going on," said defender Christie Rampone, "but they showed no emotion. Their body language was great, so I was like, 'OK, just keep playing.'"
That could also serve as the team slogan for the survive-and-advance knockout rounds, which just got a lot more favorable for the U.S. team.
• After taking plenty of brickbats, the players leading the U.S. team deserve some credit. The U.S.' senior leaders got hammered for their handling of the Hope Solo story at last year's Women's World Cup, but their ability to settle the team and come back to win the group after an opening-game loss was impressive.
In the moments after the loss to Norway, Rampone (the team captain since January) and Kate Markgraf reminded the team of the 2000 Olympics, when the Norway lost the first game to the U.S. only to exact revenge against the Americans in the gold-medal game.
"Anything can happen in the Olympics," Rampone told her teammates. On Tuesday, it did. (Rampone earned her 200th cap against New Zealand, by the way.)
• The fastest goal in Olympic history helped ease the pressure. HeatherO'Reilly's looping 35-yard strike came only 40 seconds into the game, breaking the record for fastest goal in an Olympic women's game set by Norway against the U.S. in the opener. This U.S. team is more willing to take a crack at shots from outside the box than any predecessor I can remember. And when they go in, good things can happen.
"For me, it was a confidence thing with this USA team," New Zealand coach John Herdman said afterward. "I think that goal in the first minute relieved a lot of pressure for that team. That early goal was their godsend."
• The U.S. forwards finally got off the schneid. In the first two games, the American strikers succeeded in few tasks other than showing that they weren't Abby Wambach. That changed on Tuesday, when both Rodriguez and Hucles found the net for the first time in the tournament. Both forwards needed that shot of confidence with the knockout rounds starting on Friday.
• The quarterfinal against Canada could be tougher than most people think. The U.S. and Canadians have met four times in '08, and two of them have been close: a 1-0 U.S. win in the final of the Peace Queen Cup in June 21 (won by a second-half stoppage-time goal by Hucles) and a U.S. win on penalties in the final of the CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament in April.
The two other U.S. wins came in blowouts: a 4-0 U.S. win in January and a 6-0 U.S. win in May. "I've been part of this team a couple years and I feel like I've played them so much," said midfielder Carli Lloyd. "So we know how they play. It's going to be a defensive battle."
• Center back Rachel Buehler started in place of Markgraf, who has been suffering from an illness. The 22-year-old Buehler was much better against New Zealand than she had been in a substitute's role against Japan. Not only was she solid on defense, but she also hit the long-ball over the top to Rodriguez for the U.S.'s second goal.
• If I'm Norway coach Bjarne Berntsen, I'm about ready to fall on my sword after my team fell 5-1 to Japan in a game where a simple tie would have meant avoiding Brazil and Germany in the Half of the Draw from Hell.
• Left back Lori Chalupny played all 90 minutes in her first game back after suffering what she said was diagnosed as "a concussion" on a collision in the opener against Norway. "I'm feeling good and ready to go," she said after the game.
One thing Chalupny might not be happy about: The IOC's official Olympic roster list claims that she's 5-foot-4 and weighs 165 pounds, which isn't even close to accurate.
• Strange but true: On my train from Beijing to Shenyang, one of my seatmates was reading a Chinese translation of Jarhead, Anthony Swofford's gripping account of fighting for the U.S. in the first Iraq war.
• Infuriating but true: The Google search engine is blocked at the official IOC-and FIFA-approved media hotel here, calling into question the log-in page that reads "you can now use the network freely." Some of us don't take the word free quite so lightly.