TORONTO (AP) – Three games away. Three wins to go.
That is how close the US women's national team is from securing a third straight Olympic gold medal and close to easing the lingering pain of last year's World Cup disappointment. They are within reach of redemption, while also showing us all that this American squad is worth the hype.
"This is when the tournament starts," US midfielder Lauren Cheney said Thursday. "It's knockout stage. There's no mess-ups in this."
The second half of the United States' gold medal journey will be significantly tougher than the first. While Friday's quarterfinal against New Zealand might be considered a cakewalk, it's likely to be anything but.
The Football Ferns only just squeezed into the quarterfinals by virtue of goal difference as a third-place group finisher. That doesn't really tell the tale of what makes New Zealand a tricky proposition for the United States.
New Zealand emerged from a tough group that featured Great Britain and Brazil, and managed to make life difficult for both teams. The Kiwis held each squad to just one goal in a pair of 1-0 defeats. Against highly-regarded Brazil, it took an 86th-minute goal to knock them out.
If those defensive efforts, and the Ferns' 3-1 group stage finale victory against Cameroon aren't enough confidence boosters heading into Friday's quarterfinal, New Zealand also has the memory of their match against the USA this past February as motivation.
In that match, New Zealand was on the verge of a major upset only to have Alex Morgan score goals in the 88th minute and in stoppage time to pull a 2-1 USA victory. That wasn't a USA B team the Ferns pushed to the brink; it was a USA team featuring all the same players who have helped the Americans roll to a 3-0 group stage record.
As much confidence as New Zealand can draw from that performance, the Americans will also come into Friday's quarterfinal feeling good about some areas of concern that the team addressed in the 1-0 victory against North Korea. The defensive strong showing, and the efforts of right back Amy LePeilbet and centerback Rachel Buehler, bode well for a good run in the knockout stages for a defense that has long been regarded as the weak link of this US team.
The defense could receive an even bigger boost with news that defensive midfielder Shannon Boxx has resumed training and could be available for the match. While Carli Lloyd has stepped in and played extremely well in her place, Boxx brings a presence to the US midfield that no other player does. Her work thwarting attacks and covering ground will be vital to the team's hopes of winning a gold medal this summer.
If Boxx is ready to play right away, Sundhage will have a tough decision to make. Does she sit Lloyd who has been key in all three USA victories, or does she sit Lauren Cheney, who started all three group stage matches? Lloyd has outperformed Cheney in these Olympics, but Sundhage is a big fan of the attacking qualities Cheney brings to the table.
That is likely to be Sundhage's toughest, and perhaps only, decision to make regarding her starting lineup. Heather O'Reilly put both hands on the starting right midfield role after her stellar match against North Korea, which now gives the Americans a dangerous speed threat off the bench in winger Tobin Heath. Considering that the match could end up going to extra time or penalty kicks, Sundhage will certainly consider her substitution options.
"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."
Sundhage will be banking on her midfield playing better than it did against North Korea, and the key to that will be how Megan Rapinoe responds. Against North Korea, she looked worn out and appeared to have hit a wall early on in the match. The extra day of rest and just a 45-minute appearance versus North Korea may help re-energize Rapinoe and give the US attack the spark it lacked in the group stage finale.
If Rapinoe can spark the attack, and O'Reilly can repeat her performance against North Korea, then Alex Morgan and Abby Wambach should be able to find good chances against the stingy New Zealand defense.
Yet, if the midfield struggles again, the Americans could find themselves in yet another tough match against a team that has already shown it can make things very difficult.