Women's Olympic soccer preview

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Alex Morgan, U.S.: The speedy 23-year-old forward had a goal and assist in last year's World Cup final, but she only became a full-time starter for the U.S. earlier this year alongside veteran Abby Wambach.


Morgan has been on fire in 2012, leading the U.S. with 17 goals in 15 games, and teammates say her tactical awareness is growing by leaps and bounds. She also has a knack for timely goals in the dying minutes of games.

Kelly Smith, U.K.: When healthy, Smith has been one of the world's best players, a high-scoring forward (45 international goals) who dribbles like a Brazilian. But injuries have plagued the Seton Hall alum, and it remains to be seen if the 33-year-old Arsenal player will be at her best after racing to recover from a stress fracture in one of her legs. If she's in good form, though, there will be plenty of support from the home fans. It's a great opportunity, both on and off the field: Smith's autobiography comes out July 19.

Marta, Brazil: The five-time world player of the year has yet to win a World Cup or Olympic title in five tries, and you have to wonder if her generation of Brazilian players is on the decline by now. But Marta is just 26 and still the most exciting player in global women's soccer, a dribbling dervish who can conjure goals out of nothing. She needs the support of a good team around her, however, and the lack of support from the Brazilian federation (read: few games scheduled) hinders Brazil's chances.

Homare Sawa, Japan: Sawa led Japan's fairy-tale run to the 2011 World Cup title and deservedly won the Ballon d'Or as the world player of the year. But she's 33 now, and following up on the World Cup won't be easy. Then again, Sawa's game may well work into her 30s, considering it's based on short passes and vision rather than raw athleticism. Sawa's teammates are similarly blessed on the technical side, which is why some observers call Japan the Barcelona of women's soccer.

Christine Sinclair, Canada: Who will break Mia Hamm's all-time international goal-scoring record of 158? Chances are it will be either the 29-year-old Sinclair (currently at 135) or Wambach (138). The race between Sinclair, a University of Portland alum, and Wambach should continue to be a fun one, but Sinclair's focus is on getting Canada out of a tough group that includes Japan and Sweden. After last year's World Cup fiasco, things can only get better for the Canadians.

Lotta Schelin, Sweden: Sweden's most feared striker has won the past two UEFA Champions League titles with French club Lyon and scored twice at the 2011 World Cup. At 28, Schelin might be nearing the peak of her powers. Sweden is capable of going on a deep run after reaching the World Cup semis a year ago.

Louisa Nécib, France: France was one of the most improved teams at the World Cup, reaching the semifinals, and Nécib is a fascinating 25-year-old playmaker from a French-Algerian neighborhood in Marseille who has been called the female Zinédine Zidane. The winner of two straight UEFA Champions League titles with Lyon, she'll get the chance to make an impact in France's Olympic opener against the United States.

The only member of the U.S. team who wasn't on the 2011 World Cup squad is Sydney Leroux, an electric 22-year-old forward who scored five goals in a single game at the Olympic qualifying tournament earlier this year. New starters of late include Megan Rapinoe, who has won back a spot in the lineup after losing it just before the World Cup, Tobin Heath, who has been patrolling the left flank, and Kelley O'Hara, who has been switched from forward to left back. The U.S. will still be relying on its two stars, Wambach and goalkeeper Hope Solo, as well as defender and captain Christie Rampone (now 37) and central midfielder Lauren Cheney.

Likely U.S. lineup: Hope Solo; Amy LePeilbet, Christie Rampone, Rachel Buehler, Kelley O'Hara; Megan Rapinoe, Shannon Boxx, Lauren Cheney, Tobin Heath, Alex Morgan, Abby Wambach.

USA-France (NBCSN, noon ET, July 25)

The first event of the Games involving U.S. athletes (it takes place two days before the opening ceremony) provides the Americans with their biggest test of the group stage. France is the most improved team in women's world soccer, and it gave the U.S. trouble at times in the semifinals of last year's World Cup.

Canada-Sweden (9:30 a.m. ET, July 31)

The final game in a hotly contested Group F (which also includes Japan) will likely have a big impact on how the knockout bracket will look.

U.S.-Japan (potential gold-medal game, NBCSN, 2:45 p.m. ET, Aug. 9)

If the U.S. wins its group, the knockout stage foes could be Canada, Brazil and Japan, a tough trio by any measure. Canada is a physical rival that has been tough to play against, while Brazil would love the chance to avenge last year's epic World Cup quarterfinal loss to the Yanks. The same would go for the U.S. if it got another crack at Japan in the gold-medal game after falling to the Japanese in the World Cup final.

South Africa

Banyana Banyana has qualified for its first major women's tournament, offering the team that has been known in the past for tragic reasons -- some of its players were targeted for "corrective rape" -- the chance to achieve on the world stage. (Former team member Eudy Simelane was murdered in 2008.) If the South Africans can provide a surprise in a tough group (with Japan, Canada and Sweden), it would be a nice story for a team that has gone through some horrible events.

• The U.S. has won three of the last four Olympic gold medals in women's soccer (1996, 2004, '08) despite not winning a Women's World Cup since 1999.

• Two-time World Cup champion Germany failed to qualify for the Olympic tournament, which is a shame for the level of the competition. Instead of using a qualifying tournament, UEFA simply relied on results from the World Cup. Germany (an upset loser in the quarterfinals) did not do as well as Sweden and France (which reached the semis). There really is no good reason why the women's Olympic soccer tournament has 12 teams and the men's has 16, but that's FIFA and the IOC for you.

• North Korea is a group with the U.S. for the fifth time at an Olympics or World Cup going back to 1999, but there are questions over whether the North Koreans should even be involved. After several North Korean players tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs at last year's World Cup, FIFA banned North Korea from the 2015 World Cup. But that ban does not apply to the Olympics, so the team will be involved. You might also recall that the North Korean coach blamed his team's loss to the U.S. last year on a pre-tournament lightning strike that hit some of his players.

The gold-medal game will be played at Wembley Stadium on Aug. 9 at 2:45 p.m. ET.