United States women’s Olympic preview: Changes ahead for Pia Sundhage’s team?

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The U.S. will try to retain its 100 percent record at Old Trafford. Will old foes North Korea invoke a nightmare scenario at the Theatre of Dreams?

The United States/North Korean rivalry dates back a long way. This marks the fifth time the two teams have met in the group stage of a major tournament. The U.S. has rampaged through the preliminary round with confidence-inspiring wins over France and Colombia. The team has already clinched a place in the Quarterfinals, but will North Korea spoil the celebrations?

Is further squad rotation in the works?

Expect the unexpected when it comes to Pia Sundhage’s roster selections. Tuesday’s line-up might also feature an element of surprise. Only two members of the U.S.’s 18-player squad have yet to make a tournament appearance – goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart and defender Becky Sauerbrunn (pictured, center). The U.S. merely need a draw to claim the group which might grant Sundhage license to further test the depth of her squad.

During the run-up to the 2011 World Cup, Sundhage was oft-criticized for her near obsessive reliance on the same 11 players. The same can no longer be said. Tuesday’s match could serve as the latest example of that change of tact.

Thinking aloud here, it would be interesting to see Sauerbrunn get the green light over Rachel Buehler. Sauerbrunn filled in for Buehler in the World Cup semifinal against France after she earned a red card in the preceding match. The Virginia native earned top marks. Her shrewd tactical discipline could come in handy against a supremely well-drilled side like North Korea.

(MORE: Some U.S. players clearly enjoyed their Monday in and around Old Trafford)

Will the fearsome foursome of Morgan, Wambach, Rapinoe, and Lloyd carry the day again?

The U.S.’s quartet of attackers might be due for a snappy nickname – one that’s admittedly a lot less lame than the just given. What better setting for a christening than the Olympics? The four players have combined for all seven of the United States’ goals so far.

While Alex Morgan and Abby Wambach will continue to get top billing, Megan Rapinoe has had a hand (okay, foot) in nearly every one of those goals. Being stripped of starting duties has seemingly given Carli Lloyd a new sense of determination. After two solid outings and two positively peachy goals, Lloyd is re-introducing herself to the USWNT faithful as a robustly productive force in midfield.

A slow start is quite possible, but don’t hit the panic button.

The United States met North Korea in its opening group stage match at the 2011 World Cup. The first half made for dreadful viewing to those who pledge allegiance to the Stars and Stripes. Sundhage’s side attempted to unlock its opponents’ mechanical-like defense but only succeeded in looking frustrated and listless. After 54 minutes, the U.S. finally broke through and strode to a 2-0 win.

France endured a similarly fraught task in its group stage match against North Korea on Saturday. North Korea’s well-organized formation made it difficult for France to find its groove. A tie – if not all-out defeat – looked inevitable after 70 minutes, until alas, France burned a fading North Korean defense with fresh legs and blistering pace. Four goals later, a shell-shocked North Korean side stood on the wrong side of a 5-0 trouncing.

(MORE: Why Saturday’s win will pay dividends)

The same scenario might unfold on Tuesday. North Korea could well frustrate the U.S. with their supreme organization, but can they sustain it for 90 minutes? The U.S. has become known for pulling off late comebacks. If all else fails, the United States has experience closing out matches. That’s an advantage that shouldn’t be overlooked.

‘Oh, really?’ factoid of the day:

For all of the team’s gold medals, the USWNT has never won all of its Olympic group stage matches. A win over North Korea could represent an unprecedented achievement.