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2008 Summer Olympic Games Preview - Soccer

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - The United States Women's National Team enters the 2008 Summer Olympics with hopes of defending its gold medal from 2004, but that task will be much tougher this time around without star striker Abby Wambach.

Wambach, who scored the game-winning goal in the 2004 Olympic final against Brazil, will miss the tournament after breaking her leg in the team's last match prior to the Olympics on July 16 against Brazil.

Prior to Wambach's injury, the Americans appeared to have recovered from their disastrous exit at the hands of Brazil in the 2007 Women's World Cup, posting a 21-0-1 record under new head coach Pia Sundhage that includes tournament wins in both the Algarve Cup and Peace Queen Cup.

However, without Wambach, who has tallied 99 goals in her career, the team is left with a huge void to fill in attack. Lauren Cheney will take Wambach's spot in the roster, and she will join Natasha Kai and Amy Rodriguez to form a talented but inexperienced strike force.

Kai is the senior member of the group with over 50 caps but she is most effective when teamed with Wambach, who generally draws all of the attention from opposing defenses.

With Wambach sidelined, Kai, who has 11 goals this year, will be the one who must shoulder a large portion of the scoring load, but she will have help from the promising Rodriguez, who will have a chance to emerge as a true star at the age of 21.

A strong midfield led by Shannon Boxx and Carli Lloyd figures to help the young strikers, while Heather O'Reilly and Lindsay Tarpley will provide good service from the wings.

The Americans are one of the top teams in the world defensively and have yielded just 11 goals in their 22 matches so far this year. Kate Markgraf and Christie Rampone anchor the strong back line, and they have the benefit of playing in front of one of the top goalkeepers in the world in Hope Solo, who will be counted on to have a great tournament.

Even without Wambach on the field, the Americans still have a great chance to win their group, which includes Norway, Japan and New Zealand.

Their toughest match in Group G will be the opener with Norway on Aug. 6, but the United States has had plenty of success against the Scandinavian side in recent matches, winning 4-0 in the Algarve Cup in March and securing a 4-1 win in the third-place match at the 2007 World Cup.

The group is not overly challenging, but things could get difficult in the knockout round without Wambach. Potential opponents include Brazil, Germany, Sweden and Korea DPR, each of whom will like its chances against the Americans without Wambach to contend with.

Despite her injury, Wambach has remained upbeat and still believes that her teammates have enough class to bring home the gold.

"Obviously, it's devastating, but above everything else, I'm only one player, and you can never win a championship with just one player," Wambach said. "I have the utmost confidence in this team bringing home the gold."

GROUP F

This is by far the toughest group in the competition with three of the top six teams in the world. Brazil and Germany, the 2007 World Cup finalists, are both in this group along with highly-rated Korea DPR, while Nigeria rounds out the group and is expected to struggle greatly. This will be the first time that the women's soccer competition will feature 12 teams, making it likely that all three powerhouse teams from this group will advance. While third place is likely to still be enough, it also will probably ensure a quarterfinal match with the United States or Sweden, so a top-two finish would be much better. Brazil and Germany will be favored to battle for the top spot, but Germany has not looked very impressive since winning the World Cup, which could open the door for Korea to slip into the top two.

GROUP E

Host nation China inhabits this group, but they will have a tough time with both Sweden and Canada, while Argentina looks to be the weakest of the four teams. Sweden will be hoping to rebound from a disappointing World Cup that saw them fail to advance past the group stage. The Swedes are traditionally a threat a to win any major competition, and they look to be the class of this group. Canada also failed to live up to expectations at the World Cup and they too will be aiming for improvement. China could challenge for one of the top two spots, but they are more likely to finish third and hope to grab a last- eight position that way.

On the men's side, South American teams Brazil and Argentina are both loaded.

Brazil added Ronaldinho and Robinho as two of its overage stars, and the pair could easily lead the country to its first Olympic gold.

The Brazilians, who have won five World Cups, captured the silver medal in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles and followed that with another silver in 1988. The country also won bronze in the 1996 Games in Atlanta, Ga.

Ronaldinho, 28, has scored 32 goals in 82 appearances for Brazil's senior team. He is a two-time FIFA World Player of the Year, and has also garnered European Footballer of the Year and FIFPro World Player of the Year awards.

The only concern is Ronaldinho's health after a long season with Barcelona in Spain's La Liga last season. He was limited due to injuries and could also be hindered by the distraction of his recent transfer to Italy's AC Milan.

But if Ronaldinho returns to top form, he's capable of leading Brazil to the gold.

Robinho, 24, isn't as well-known as Ronaldinho, but the diminutive striker has 15 goals in 50 games for Brazil's senior team. He had 11 goals for Real Madrid in Spain's La Liga last season.

Defender Thiago Silva is the third overage player added by coach Dunga, who was hoping to add 2007 FIFA World Player of the Year Kaka but he wasn't released by AC Milan.Players over the age of 23 can be blocked from playing by their club team.

"The experience factor can be decisive in the Olympics," Dunga said on Brazil's football confederation website.

In addition to the three overage players, AC Milan 18-year-old phenom Alexandre Pato, Manchester United's Anderson, Liverpool's Lucas and Werder Bremen's Diego are just a few of Brazil's young stars.

Brazil is easily the favorite to win Group C, which includes 1920 gold medalist Belgium, China and New Zealand.

GROUP A

Argentina, which just captured its first Olympic gold in 2004, matches Brazil in talent. Boca Juniors midfielder Juan Riquelme, Liverpool midfielder Javier Mascherano and Inter Milan defender Nicolas Burdisso are the overage players.

But Argentina's most dynamic player is 21-year-old Lionel Messi.

Messi already has 29 appearances for Argentina's senior team - and nine goals - and is arguably the most feared striker in the world. Barcelona is fighting to keep Messi for upcoming Champions League qualifying matches, but it's unlikely he'll be prevented from playing in the Olympics.

Sergio Aguero, 20, has made seven appearances for the senior team and should be alongside Messi at forward. Aguero led Atletico Madrid with 19 goals in Spain's La Liga last season.

Argentina is the favorite in Group A, which includes Australia, Ivory Coast and Serbia. Australia, which won the bronze in 1992, is the only other team in the group that has ever medaled.

GROUP B

The United States, which last medaled in 1904, is in a tough Group B with the Netherlands, 1996 gold medalist Nigeria and Japan.

The Americans tried to improve their chances of medaling by selecting Brian McBride, Brad Guzan and Michael Parkhurst as their overage players.

McBride, 36, is 12 years older than any U.S. player. He made 95 appearances for the U.S. senior team and has played in three World Cups. He last played in the English Premier League from 2004-2008 with Fulham, and is likely to join Major League Soccer after the Olympics.

Guzan, who recently agreed on a transfer to England's Aston Villa, is the back- up to Everton goalie Tim Howard on the U.S. senior team. He is just 23, but was born in September of 1984, which missed the cutoff by a few months.

Parkhurst is just 24 and another rising star for the U.S. senior national team.

Michael Bradley, who is just 20, is another young star who emerged in Europe in 2007-08. He scored 17 goals for Dutch club Heerenveen in all events to break McBride's single-season European record for a U.S. player. The son of senior team coach Bob Bradley, Michael already has 20 appearances for the senior club.

U.S. teen stars Jozy Altidore and Freddy Adu, who have both moved to Europe to play club soccer in the last year, highlight the rest of the roster. Altidore just transferred from Red Bull New York to Spain's Villarreal in June. Adu left Real Salt Lake in MLS to sign with Benfica last season.

Benny Feilhaber, a Brazilian-born midfielder, has made 16 appearances for the senior national team and returns from an injury to solidify the Olympic team.

Every team in Group B has earned a medal at the Olympic Games. Although Nigeria has only won in 1996, it remains a good team. Japan won bronze in 1968 and the Netherlands won three straight bronze medals in 1908, 1912 and 1920.

GROUP D

Italy highlights Group D, but the four-time World Cup winners don't feature as much talent as Brazil and Argentina and haven't won the gold medal since 1936. American-born striker Giuseppe Rossi is among the players to watch after scoring 11 goals for Villarreal last season.

Cameroon, which is trying to get Barcelona striker Samuel Eto'o for the Games, is hoping to repeat its gold medal success from 2000. Eto'o was part of that team, which defeated Brazil in overtime in the quarterfinals, Chile in the semifinals and Spain in the final.

Honduras, the other representative from CONCACAF along with the United States, is the other team in Group D.

The top two teams from each group advance to the quarterfinals. The men's event starts Aug. 7 and concludes with the final on Aug. 23.

07/18 14:52:35 ET


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