With the uncertainty shrouding the 2016 Rio Olympics, one thing is for certain, the women’s soccer competition is going to be a thrilling one. The tournament is quickly approaching and while women’s soccer at the Olympics only started in 1996, it has garnered a great deal of popularity and importance on the world stage. Expectations in the United States are high coming off a World Cup victory last summer. The Americans will be competing for their fourth gold medal in a row, and fifth overall. However, the U.S. team has a tough path ahead of it if it is to continue its Olympic domination.
The "Road to Rio" for every team has been different, but each team has earned its spot. Brazil is the only team that did not have to ‘qualify’ since Brazil is the host nation, but nevertheless the team deserves to be there considering the fact it is ranked eighth in the world by FIFA. Each continent has a certain number of qualifying spots for this competition. Africa, Asia, North America, and South America each have spots for two teams, while Europe has three and Oceana has one. South Africa (52) and Zimbabwe (93) represent Africa, Australia (5) and China (12) represent Asia, France (3) Germany (2) and Sweden (6) represent Europe, Canada (10) and the United States (1) represent North America, New Zealand (17) represents Oceana, and lastly, Brazil (8) and Colombia (24) represent South America.
(Parentheses note World FIFA ranking)*
Unlike the men’s tournament which has four, women’s soccer in the Olympics only has three groups. Each group has been labeled exceptionally difficult to win, with each group being considered a ‘Group of Death’. The top two finishers from each group automatically qualify for the Quarter-finals, while the two best third place finishers also go through to the Quarter-finals. The U.S. is a sure fire pick to go through to the knock out round, but with the tough opposition they face, it will be no easy task to win Group G. Group E and F will be heavily contested as each group has multiple teams that surely have the ability to finish at the top. It will be a surprise to many if South Africa or Zimbabwe find a way to escape the group stage, but as for the rest of the teams, each has a considerable chance to progress.
While there are plenty of great teams with the depth to take them all the way, the United States is considered to be the favorite. There are many reasons for this, one being it is the top ranked team in the world having won its third World Cup last year. Also, the U.S. has a special history when it comes to performing in the Olympics, winning gold four of the five times it has been a part of the Olympic games. The team's track record for almost always finding a way to win in this competition is an intangible edge over other teams. Combine that with the U.S. women not losing any of their last 14 games, the last loss coming in December as a 1-0 loss to China, the U.S. team is coming into the tournament in solid form. It's important to note that in this current 14 game winning streak, the U.S. team has beaten Canada, France, Germany, Colombia, and South Africa. However, this is the Olympics, and one of the things that makes it such a special event is the many underdogs that have prevailed - and, there is plenty of potential for that to happen with women’s soccer this year.
Teams like Brazil, China, Germany and Canada will be particularly hungry for gold this summer as they have medaled in previous tournaments, but never atop the podium. Brazil in particular, being the host nation will have a little extra to play for, and has the potential to be a highly dangerous team when at the top of their game. Having finished second to the U.S. in two Olympics, it would be no surprise to see Brazil make it to the final in their home country. No one can count out the European teams simply because they are some of the best teams in the world, and quite frankly, its unrealistic to count any of these teams out. There is so much talent and depth in this tournament that it would be no surprise to have a new team win the gold, or have all three medals go to teams who have not medaled before, like France, Australia or Sweden. This is bound to be one of the most competitive women’s soccer competitions the Olympics has had to date, and will not be short of excitement or drama. We can only hope that we see the U.S. Women's Team continue its success and win its 5th consecutive gold medal after the final match on August 20th.