The air will feel extra thick when the United States women's soccer team faces Japan in the 2012 Olympics gold medal match at Wembley Stadium, and it won't be from the London fog.
The amount of pressure the U.S. women face to win this gold medal is palpable. An ocean away, American soccer fans can already sense the suffocating importance of winning this game against that team. It's almost too much to imagine what the players must be feeling.
U.S. soccer has won the gold medal in three of the previous four Olympics, earning silver in the other. Adding another gold to the American team's tally would rival only men's and women's basketball on the short list of dominant teams in Olympic history.
If securing a legacy isn't enough pressure, there is Japan, of all teams, standing across the center line and hoping to thwart the United States in a major competition once again.
Since the start of the World Cup last July, the U.S. women's soccer team is 19-3-3, with two of those losses coming to Japan, including the devastating penalty kick defeat in the World Cup final.
It is not hyperbole to suggest the loss to Japan in the World Cup final—given the fact the U.S. held a 2-1 lead in the 116th minute of play and looked certain to win after Abby Wambach buried a header in the 104th minute of extra time—was the worst result in American women's soccer history.
Now, in the next major tournament final just 13 months after the disastrous ending to the World Cup, the U.S. has a chance to bring home another gold.
With more than 80,000 people in attendance at Wembley Stadium and millions around the world watching, all focus will be on whether this American side can get revenge for last year's defeat and defend the Olympic crown to win a third straight gold medal.
The pressure is enough to make you want to vomit, truly.
Before the Olympics began, midfielder Carli Lloyd admitted, "there's some bitterness from the loss against Japan, so that's driving us even more." Now that bitterness has certainly turned to focus, which could easily manifest into pressure.
There's no way to avoid feeling pressure when facing the team that denied you from winning the biggest prize in your sport, competing against it for a Olympic immortality in front of the entire world.
Japan is playing with the soccer equivalent of house money, still in a glow of celebration from last year's World Cup and having a chance for the rare major-tournament double over the same team. Winning a gold medal over the United States would be the icing on top of the most delicious soccer-ball shaped cake ever. (I assume it would be from one of those fancy bake shops where they sprinkle edible gold flecks all over the top of the cake. Nobody ever asks for silver flecks on their cake.)
Japan finished second in its group behind Sweden with one win and two draws, falling on goal differential despite giving up just one goal in three matches.
Japan faced world power Brazil in the quarterfinals, winning 2-0 before defeating France in the semifinals, 2-1. Japan will now face the highest-scoring team in the tournament after giving up just two goals in five games.
Something has to give.
While the United States has struggled at times on defense—nobody mention that to Hope Solo—the offense has been dynamic, scoring a tournament-best 14 goals off 36 shots on net, led by Wambach, Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe, who have combined for 11 of Team USA's tallies. How those three offensive stars perform against Japan will go a long way in determining what color the medal will be.
Having said that, Morgan and Wambach both scored in the World Cup final against Japan, while Morgan and Rapinoe each had an assist. A lot of good that did in the end.
There may be more pressure on head coach Pia Sundhage than anyone.
Sundhage has done a masterful job picking the right substitutes throughout the Olympics. While too much depth can be a tricky thing to manage, Sundhage has consistently made the right call with her roster.
With Lloyd struggling in the pre-Olympic matches, Sundhage put her on the bench, replacing her with Lauren Cheney. When Shannon Boxx got injured in the first match of the tournament, Sundhage installed Lloyd as a holding midfielder—a role she does not normally play—and Lloyd scored the game winner. She added another one in the second and has gotten stronger in that role each and every match. While Morgan and Rapinoe got all the headlines in the win against Canada, Lloyd was as integral to the team's success as anyone.
Sundhage has involved Sydney Leroux on the front line so seamlessly in the knockout stages that some are suggesting the USWNT go to a 3-4-3 alignment to start matches.
She has also managed the rotation of her attacking midfield amazingly well, platooning Tobin Heath with Heather O'Reilly on the outside flank. In the 101st minute of the semifinal against Canada, Sundhage installed O'Reilly on the right wing, moving Heath in the middle to replace Cheney. The result was a superb cross from O'Reilly right onto the head of Morgan for the game winner.
In the final, the pressure will be on Sundhage more than ever before. Remember, she had some questionable decisions in the World Cup final, notably leaving a final substitute unused despite an extra-time lead and three seasoned defenders on the bench.
As fantastic as her decisions have been during the Olympics, the nightmare finish against the team she now faces has to be weighing on her. She knows she has to make the right moves throughout this match and with so much at stake, it may be hard to know how players will respond.
Which players want revenge too much? Which players can handle this kind of pressure the best? Which players can handle it at all?
This game is beyond "must-win" pressure. We feel it. The players and coaches have to be feeling it too. Take a deep breath, if you can.
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