Analyzing the U.S. draw for the London Olympic tournament

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The draw for the women’s soccer tournament at the 2012 Summer Olympics was conducted early Tuesday. Here’s the complete field:

Group A

  • Great Britain
  • New Zealand
  • Cameroon
  • Brazil

Group B

  • USA
  • France
  • Colombia
  • North Korea

Group C

  • Japan
  • Canada
  • Sweden
  • South Africa

Now for what it means:

Charting new territory: The United States plays its first two group matches against France and Colombia in Glasgow at famed Hampden Park. They will then round out the group stage in Manchester at Old Trafford.  But for the USWNT, the British Isles is still a land that is relatively unknown. The team staged a pre-World Cup training camp in Scotland last spring, but has never played a competitive match in the country. The side played its first ever match on British soil last year against England and earned a disappointing 2-1 loss. Pia Sundhage’s team will hope for a better result this time.

Familiar opponents…to a point: The U.S. faced each group opponent at various stages in the World Cup last summer, collecting wins against all three. Still, this will mark the first time the team has faced any of its group foes in the Olympics. If past results are anything to go by, the U.S. should fare well in group play for the 2012 Women’s Olympic Tournament. The USWNT has never lost to any of its Group B competitors. The combined record against all three teams stands at 17-0-2 with 51 goals scored and 10 conceded.

Also, it also wouldn’t be a proper international tournament without a USWNT/North Korea group stage duel. The two sides have been drawn together in the same group in the last four Women’s World Cups. Don’t you love it when tradition is upheld?

Can’t snooze on Les Bleues: One gets the sense the U.S.’s commanding 12-0-1 all-time record against France will hold little significance when the two face off in Group B’s opening match. France are undeniably the rising stars of international women’s soccer. Bruno Bini’s stylish side captured hearts at the World Cup last summer before falling to the U.S. in the semi-finals. France played the most progressive soccer of the tournament and were awarded with an automatic Olympic berth by virtue of their fourth-place finish. Victory in the annual Cyprus Cup last month suggests Les Bleues’ sizzling form hasn’t cooled down. The U.S. were famously downed by Norway in their first match of the 2008 Olympics and later went on to win the tournament. Will a similar scenario pan out this time?

New faces in the crowd: This is probably the thousandth bullet point on the “signs international women’s soccer is growing” list. In previous Olympic tournaments, berths for the CONMEBOL and CAF regions were generally limited to one, if any at all. The 2012 Olympics will see two berths for each federation and thus, the tournament debuts of three countries. Group B’s Colombia made their first appearance in the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup last summer and will use this as another opportunity to nurture its young squad. Nigeria has been Africa’s only representative in the women’s tournament. Up to now, at least. South Africa and Cameroon each narrowly missed out on World Cup qualification in late 2010, but will now have the chance to compete for Olympic glory.

Grand stage for a new generation: This tournament could be a swan song of sorts for several USWNT stalwarts entering the twilights of their careers. The Olympics has been a proving ground for emerging talents eager to earn their keeps. Lauren Cheney, Amy Rodriguez, and Tobin Heath were in their very early 20’s when they each got their respective first tastes of major tournament soccer at the 2008 Olympics. Each has since developed at different rates, but all remain integral parts of the senior fold. Alex Morgan, 22, and Sydney Leroux, 21, will likely lead the USWNT’s front line for the foreseeable future. 23 year-old attacker-turned-defender Kelley O’Hara has seemingly overcome the learning curve and had two very serviceable performances in the Kirin Cup Challenge earlier this month. 24 year-old Whitney Engen is in line to inherit a starting job in the backline once a vacancy arises. A slender 20-player roster will make competition for roster spots particularly fierce. For many of these players, the future is now.

The end of an era?: In early 2008 Pia Sundhage inherited a Women’s National Team program in transition and slight disarray. The USWNT had been eliminated from the 2007 Women’s World Cup in humiliating fashion complete with a 4-0 meltdown versus Brazil, that goalkeeper controversy, and the dismissal of head coach Greg Ryan. Nine months later, Sundhage galvanized the squad to its third Olympic gold medal. The thrilling extra time victory over arch rivals Brazil led to a contract extension. Sundhage’s contract reportedly runs through this summer’s Olympics.  The former Swedish international hasn’t been bashful about her ambitions to return to her native country. Another gold medal will undoubtedly cement Sundhage’s legacy as one of the most successful, effective coaches in the program’s history. Talk about going out on top.