Olympics 2012: Win-or-else time for U.S. soccer women

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NEWCASTLE, England — The coach of the U.S. women’s soccer team wants her players in win-or-go-home mode. She just doesn’t want them thinking too much about it.

The great mental shift, familiar in major soccer tournaments everywhere, has occurred in the last couple of days at the Olympics. The group stage is done. Eight of the 12 women’s teams — including all the nations predicted to be medal contenders — have advanced to the so-called knockout stage, starting with Friday’s quarterfinals.

Remember how the Americans slowed down the game against North Korea on Tuesday to save their legs? Remember how the Japanese deliberately didn’t score against South Korea in a 0-0 draw so they didn’t need to travel for a few days? There’s no room for such tactics anymore: If your team doesn’t win Friday, it’s done.

“This is when the tournament starts,” U.S. midfielder Lauren Cheney said Thursday. “It’s knockout stage. There’s no mess-ups in this.”

That presents a psychological challenge, especially for a naturally upbeat leader like U.S. coach Pia Sundhage. Yes, she needs to have a game plan in case the Americans’ game against New Zealand goes into extra time or penalty kicks, but she doesn’t want to harp on it so much that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“I hesitate a little bit,” Sundhage said. “If you start to talk too much about extra time, then I show them that, well, ‘I don’t really have faith in you.’ Especially this first game I’d rather do the opposite.”

So Sundhage wants her team to keep attacking. The Americans swept the three games in their group for the first time in Olympic play, so this is not the time to start playing conservatively. She wants her players to take the term “knockout” more literally.

“This is when we knock them out,” said Sundhage, pounding her first into her palm. “Still finding the rhythm and keep your playing style, and don’t let too much up.”

The U.S. has never stumbled at this stage in Olympic or World Cup play, although there have been close calls. The Americans needed extra time to beat Canada in the quarterfinals on the way to the gold medal in Beijing four years ago, and last year they needed Abby Wambach’s remarkable extra time, injury time goal to force penalty kicks against Brazil at the World Cup.

The U.S. got the best possible draw for these Olympic quarterfinals. The Football Ferns of New Zealand advanced past the group stage of a major tournament for the first time, grabbing the final spot with a win over Cameroon after going scoreless in their first two matches.

Coach Tony Readings said his team is here to win a medal, but he conceded it would be a “massive feat for New Zealand” to beat the No. 1 ranked team in the world.

“We’re hoping that the locals will get behind us at the game because we’re going to be the underdogs,” Readings said. “We’re going to need some support from those people.”

The Americans’ only loss to New Zealand came in the early days of the program in 1987. They’ve since won eight in a row, including a 2-1 victory in a friendly in Texas in February.

The U.S.-New Zealand winner will play the Britain-Canada winner in the semifinals. Sweden vs. France and Brazil vs. Japan make up Friday’s other quarterfinals.

The Americans could welcome back midfielder Shannon Boxx, who injured her right hamstring in the Olympic opener against France. Boxx practiced Thursday for the first time since the injury and will be reevaluated before the game.

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