Win-or-go-home time for U.S. women's soccer

U.S. forward Abby Wambach goes after a ball during practice for Friday's quarterfinal match vs. New Zealand. SCOTT HEPPELL / AP
U.S. forward Abby Wambach goes after a ball during practice for Friday's quarterfinal match vs. New Zealand. SCOTT HEPPELL / AP
Posted: August 03, 2012

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 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" literally.

The United States 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 meal in Beijing four years ago, and last year they needed Abby Wambach's remarkable injury-time goal to force penalty kicks against Brazil at the World Cup.

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.

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.

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