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U.S. women

Americans start pursuit of fourth straight Olympics gold medal two days before Games begin.

By Robert Wagman

(Tuesday, August 2, 2016) -- Two days before the World's Summer Olympic teams march into Rio, Brazil's Maracana Stadium to mark the official opening of the 31st Olympiad, some 250 miles to the north of Rio, in the provincial capital of Belo Horizonte, the United States women will begin their quest for a gold medal.

The U.S. will be attempting to win a fourth straight gold medal. Given the Americans are using almost the same team that won the Women's World Cup last year in Canada, they are the prohibited favorite. But as the world of women's soccer continues to make strides towards catching the Americans, U.S. coach Jill Ellis is taking no chances.

There are some important differences between the soccer competition at the Olympics and the World Cup. Unlike the men's competition, which is limited to players under the age of 23 -- each team is allowed three players who are older -- the women's competition is not age limited. Whereas in the World Cup, each team is allowed a roster size of 23, the Olympics rosters are limited to 18 (16 field players and two goalkeepers). Roster size is important because teams are given only two days rest between matches, so teams will have to use most of the players, especially if the go deep into the tournament.

Then there is the travel. The Olympics are using the stadiums built for the men's World Cup two years ago. The U.S. is in Group G, along with France, New Zealand and Colombia. It will play its group matches on Thursday-Saturday-Tuesday with the first two matches in Belo Horizonte, but then the final game will be held 1,700 miles to the northwest, deep into the Amazon rainforest in the jungle city of Manaus.

Should the U.S. win its group, it would play its quarterfinal match in Brasilia before finally getting to Rio for the semifinal and then gold-medal match. That adds up to six matches in 17 days with considerable travel in between, so teams had better have reserves who are ready to play.

In this regard, Ellis seems to be in good shape. The joke in women's soccer is that Ellis could have brought a squad with 18 different players and it would have still contended for gold. This is a bit of an exaggeration, but only a bit of one.

Ellis has brought a veteran-heavy roster to Brazil. Fourteen of the 18 roster spots went to members of the victorious World Cup squad from last summer. The remaining places, with one exception, went to players who have been prominent with the national team since the World Cup finished. The group will have much more experience than any team they face.

The one gamble that Ellis is making is including veteran midfielder Megan Rapinoe on the squad. She has not played in a competitive match in over a year following major knee surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Rapinoe is an obvious starter if she is fit. She has been training well, but was not fit enough to play in either of the two friendlies the Americans played in the U.S. before leaving for Brazil.

Carli Lloyd and Morgan Brian are other injured veterans trying to get ready for Brazil. Lloyd who had not played a full match since spraining her knee in Apri,l did go 90 minutes in the final U.S. tune-up before leaving.

The U.S. opens Group G tomorrow against New Zealand in the Mineirão Stadium in Belo Horizonte, which also hosts the U.S. and France on Saturday. Then comes the slog to Manaus, where the Americans finish group play against Colombia August 9 at Amazônia Stadium. All three group opponents present different problems, but it would be a major upset if the U.S. lost any of those matches.

Ellis' team has a special incentive to finish atop Group G. If it does, it will meet a lesser second-place finisher in the quarter finals. Should the Americans come in second in the group, they would likely face Germany in the quarter finals. The Germans are widely seen as the second choice to win gold and likely the most difficult opponent for the U.S.

France, whose players come from club teams in the nation's strong professional league, looks to be the U.S.'s most difficult group foe. Then, beside Germany, the host team, Brazil -- the Olympic silver medalist in 2004 and 2008 -- will have home-country advantage. Australia, a much improved team, will prove difficult. It is responsible for Japan, a perennial women's powerhouse, not qualifying this time around.

Robert Wagman is SoccerTimes senior correspondent.

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