VANCOUVER, B.C.—The U.S. women's soccer team will be overwhelming favorites when CONCACAF's eight-team Olympic qualifying tournament kicks off here Thursday, but that doesn't mean it'll have a clear road to the London games. Already dealing with off-field distractions after the team narrowly avoided a fatal shooting in the lobby of their hotel Tuesday night, the Americans, who top FIFA's world rankings, find themselves in a foreign city facing tough opposition in a tournament where there's a lot at stake and almost no margin for error.
The U.S. squad's first challenge is the group stage. The tournament is divided into two pools of four, with each team playing the other three teams in its pool once. The Americans kick things off with a late game against the Dominican Republic (ranked 88th by FIFA) on Friday at 10:30 p.m. ET. They'll then face 85th-ranked Guatemala on Sunday at 7:30 p.m. ET and wrap up the group stage on Tuesday with a 10:30 p.m. ET game against old rivals Mexico (ranked 21st by FIFA). On paper, Mexico is the only one of those sides that should be able to contend with USA, and even then just barely, but it's not quite as easy as that.
Only the top two teams from each group advance to the knockout stages, so every team will be desperate for points, and the Dominican Republic and Guatemala could pose real threats for a tie or even an upset win against the U.S. if they get strong defending and a few lucky breaks. It's also possible that the Americans could get overconfident, start focusing too much on individual play and look ahead to games against Mexico and Canada, perhaps even the Olympics themselves. That could make them vulnerable against the Dominican Republic and Guatemala, two teams that have nothing to lose as everyone expects them to roll over.
Mexico presents a different challenge. It has shown in the past that it can not only play with but also beat the USA. The Mexicans knocked off the U.S. in qualifying for the 2011 World Cup, and they'd love to repeat that accomplishment here. It will be tougher for them this time, however, as that win came at home in front of a friendly crowd. (Some fans in Vancouver will have loyalties to Mexico, but you can expect American fans to make the trip to British Columbia.) Mexico still has plenty of talent on its side: Strikers like Maribel Dominguez and Veronica Perez, who both scored in that 2010 win over the U.S., are both on the Mexican roster here, and they could play key roles again. The U.S. knows how dangerous the Mexicans can be, but that won't make them an easy opponent.
The USA's toughest task will occur beyond the group stage. The top team in each pool faces the second team in the other pool in a semifinal game. The winner of each semifinal earns a guaranteed Olympic berth in addition to a spot in the final, while the losers' dreams of making it to London are done. Depending on how the pools play out, the U.S. could face seventh-ranked Canada, 41st-ranked Costa Rica, 62nd-ranked Haiti or 96th-ranked Cuba in the semifinals. All are potentially dangerous opponents, but the talented Canadians could be particularly challenging in front of their home crowd. Also, in soccer, anything can happen in a single-game elimination. On paper, the U.S. is a strong favorite to win this tournament and sail into London 2012, but there are still plenty of roadblocks to overcome.