The women's soccer tournament at the Olympics has been full of unexpected fodder and crooked scorelines. There's the entertainment value and attacking potential put forth by Zambia—the lowest-ranked team in the field—and its breakout star, Barbra Banda. Zambia's group, with all four teams having played two games, has accounted for 32 goals, while Banda and more-established Netherlands standout Vivianne Miedema have accounted for six apiece.
And while the tournament overall has featured scores such as 10–3, 4–4, 3–3, 5–0, 4–2 and 6–1, the most shocking one remains the 3–0 result that Sweden dropped on the U.S. women's national team to open group play. The U.S. bounced back from that to comfortably defeat New Zealand, but that loss has effects that figure to linger on into the knockout stage. The U.S. faces Australia and star forward Sam Kerr on Tuesday to wrap up group play, knowing it has a direct set of scenarios based on the outcome. The most likely scenario involves the U.S.'s failing to finish first in its Olympic group for the first time since the first Olympic women's soccer tournament in 1996. History is heavily on the U.S.'s side vs. the Matildas, to the tune of a 26-1-3 all-time record in their meetings, but more recent history indicates that Australia won't make things easy, and will keep the pressure on a defensive unit that hasn't had the cleanest couple of games. There's also the matter of the weather, with stormy conditions around Kashima threatening to throw a curveball into the proceedings.
Regardless, there is still much to be determined entering the final day of group play across the competition—each group's last two games are played simultaneously, beginning with the U.S.'s Group G at 4 a.m. ET—but here is how things are shaping up for Vlatko Andonovski's side, win, lose or draw:
U.S. WIN OR DRAW
The most likely scenario is the U.S. finishing second in its group (a win or draw would cement a top-two finish) and having a daunting path to gold. That was always going to be the case for the loser of the Sweden-U.S. opening match—if there was one—given how the rest of the group stacked up. Whether that comes to fruition (and it would take a Sweden loss to New Zealand and a U.S. win over Australia in which it also makes up a goal-differential deficit of three for the U.S. to finish first), then it'll be off to play either the Netherlands or Brazil in the quarterfinals, whichever one wins their group.
Facing the Netherlands would mark a rematch of the tightly contested 2019 Women's World Cup final, while Brazil, coached by former U.S. manager Pia Sundhage, has put a scare into the U.S. in their most recent SheBelieves Cup meetings but has lacked the end product to make it count on the scoreboard. Both of those teams are on four points after two games and face opponents they should beat rather handily (Netherlands-China, Brazil-Zambia are the two matchups), which means it'll most likely come down to goal differential. The Dutch have a +2 edge as it stands, so both will be out to run up the score on Tuesday.
Team Great Britain, Canada or Japan and the runner-up of Netherlands/Brazil will meet in the other quarterfinal on that side of the bracket, while Sweden will be the overwhelming favorite on the other end should things play out as anticipated. The U.S. ran a knockout-stage gantlet to a World Cup title two summers ago, and due to its own failings, it has a similar path falling into place.
Defeat would send the U.S. to a stunning third-place group finish, which, psychological and morale effects aside, would actually not be the worst thing in the world from a competitive standpoint—at least not for the quarterfinals. (There is a scenario in which the U.S. does not go through to the knockout stage, but it is highly unlikely and would require a defeat, a Japan win over Chile, and either China or Zambia doing the unthinkable to finish on four points.)
A third-place finish would actually result in a slightly more favorable opponent in the final eight (Canada or Team Great Britain would be the foe), but if you know anything about the USWNT, it's that backing into a knockout stage or shooting for anything but a win is not a consideration. And while the immediate payoff for the quarterfinals would be a marginally less-difficult foe, a rematch vs. Sweden would be looming in the semis. The U.S. would have no problem squaring up against the Swedes again, and would relish the chance for redemption—both for last week and for 2016—but the preference surely would be for that to occur in a gold medal game.
The safety net that the Olympic format provides—and the likelihood that the U.S. has already done enough to qualify for the knockout stage regardless of Tuesday's outcome—takes some of the pressure out of the group finale, but for a team looking to fine-tune and sharpen what's gone wrong while continuing to restore its confidence ahead of the matches that count the most, there's still plenty on the line.
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