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Olympic berth not guaranteed for U.S. women's soccer team

That is the sentiment around the United States women's soccer team's camp as CONCACAF Olympic qualifying approaches. The U.S. kicks off its qualifying campaign in Vancouver, B.C., on Friday against the Dominican Republic.

Two years ago, the U.S. women were nearly embarrassed in Women's World Cup qualifying when a semifinal loss to Mexico forced the No. 1 team in the world to play Italy for the final berth to the 2011 World Cup. The U.S. defeated Italy 1-0 and went on to the World Cup, but the lesson was clear: You can't take any games for granted.

"There's no better motivation than things not going as you planned and definitely, the last qualification didn't go as we planned," Wambach said.

This is important lesson for the Americans as they face a stingier Olympic qualifying test where there is no second-chance playoff -- only the two finalists in qualifying will advance to London this summer. Mexico's uptick in talent and a Canadian team with something to prove after a last-place finish in Germany means three of the world's top 21 teams will vie for two spots.

In total, eight teams will compete in the CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament. Group A consists of Canada, Costa Rica, Cuba and Haiti; Group B consists of the U.S., Mexico, Guatemala and the Dominican Republic. After the Dominican Republic, the U.S. is scheduled to play Guatemala on Jan. 22 and Mexico on Jan. 24.

Overlooking the Dominican Republic and Guatemala in group play is not something the United States can afford to do, but those games should pose little trouble for the Americans (the U.S. defeated Guatemala 9-0 in World Cup qualifying in 2010; they will be facing the Dominican Republic for the first time).

The real challenge will be its qualifying rematch with Mexico, a match which could be the key to successfully qualifying for London. With Canada likely to cruise to a first-place finish in Group A, the runner-up in Group B -- surely the U.S. or Mexico -- will have to face the No. 7 ranked team in the world on its home turf in an elimination game. Not exactly an ideal situation.

A first-place finish in Group B likely means a semifinal date with Costa Rica, a dark horse, but a far more manageable and less threatening opponent than a Canadian team with something to prove.

So how does the U.S. stack up against Mexico? Fairly well, but recent history is slightly concerning.

That World Cup qualifying loss to Mexico on Nov. 5, 2010, is the quintessential point of worry, but it is the U.S.'s 1-0 win over Mexico on June 5, just weeks before the start of the World Cup, that proved Mexico's victory was not a fluke.

On that hot summer day it took a stoppage-time goal from Lauren Cheney to give the Americans a victory. Mexico played an offensively uninspiring but defensively disciplined style against the United States that day, and the same approach could be taken in Vancouver.

Mexico coach Leonardo Cuellar's side had 10 players behind the ball for most of the game in that 1-0 loss on June 5, but El Tri still nearly managed to steal a draw on U.S. soil. Assuming Mexico and the U.S. both take care of business against Guatemala and the Dominican Republic, a draw against the U.S. might be enough for Mexico to win the group.

That would put the pressure on the United States to dictate the match and go out looking for a goal, something coach Pia Sundhage's squad is not always comfortable doing.

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Despite those potential dangers, the United States women should qualify for the Olympics barring any freak upsets. The key is taking care of business in group play to avoid Canada in the semifinals. Accomplishing that should put the U.S. on course to head to London in search of its third-straight gold medal.

Talking Tactics

Out of the 21 players who participated in the 2011 Women's World Cup, 19 made the trip to Vancouver. Defender Stephanie Cox and goalkeeper Jillian Loyden have been dropped, and young forward Syndey Leroux, who was the Atlanta Beat's No. 1 overall pick in Friday's WPS draft, rounds out the roster.

Still, there are tactical changes abound for the United States

Sundhage began implementing a 4-2-3-1 formation following the World Cup (and at times, during it), which deviates from the traditional 4-4-2 she long-coveted.

"We have so many different ways in which we can attack," Wambach said. "That was maybe one of the things that [Sundhage] learned from this last World Cup is that there were probably moments in which we came in predictable in the ways in which we attacked."

Wambach will serve as the target forward in the system, allowing versatile attackers like Cheney to play in more free-flowing roles underneath her.

Where to play the likes of Amy Rodriguez and Cheney -- a natural forward who had a breakout World Cup in more of an attacking midfield role -- will be a tough decision for Sundhage.

The most interesting battle, however, could be the one for left back, which is seemingly the only real open spot in the starting lineup. Amy LePeilbet played there during last year's World Cup, but the former center back struggled out of position.

Kelley O'Hara was reportedly used as a left back during January's training camp, indicating a pending personnel and idealistic change. She's naturally a forward -- she scored 61 goals in four years at Stanford, and transitioned to the professional level with ease, scoring 10 goals in her first two WPS seasons.

But converting forwards to outside backs is a common practice. Molding O'Hara into a left back would give the United States a left-sided attacking presence that the team has lacked out of the back for some time. There are questions about her natural ability to defend, but the fiery 23-year-old has the necessary characteristics (pace and toughness) to make the move work.

Otherwise, Sundhage is set in the back with Hope Solo in net, Rachel Buehler and Christie Rampone in central defense and Ali Krieger at right back. One unknown is how the always dependable but rarely in-favor Becky Sauerbrunn will be used moving forward. She is an option at either center back or outside back.

Shannon Boxx and Carli Lloyd will hold down central midfield, leaving the front four freedom to combine. With so much attacking talent, it will be pick your poison for Sundhage up top. Each brings something distinctly different to the table -- Heather O'Reilly, Alex Morgan, and Rodriguez brings speed; Cheney and Megan Rapinoe bring technical perfection -- which forces the U.S. skipper to make some tough tactical decisions.

Which players shine in the pressure situation of Olympic qualifying will go a long way in telling what Sundhage's roster might look like for London 2012 ... assuming the U.S. qualifies, of course.