An absolutely eerie silence just before the teams walk out. But the first notes of Seven Nation Army bring us right back to reality. Megan Rapinoe is dancing along.
It’s hot and muggy, but the field looks to be in great shape. Somewhat ominously, stadium workers were spraying reporters with insect repellent as they entered the arena. One staffer, while spraying one of my forearms, told me that mosquitos would be a problem here, “especially at night.”
The United States closes its warm-up with a bit of cheering as the starters take one last sprint. Maybe they do it every time and no one hears it, but it’s still jarring to hear players’ voices that clearly, even after so many months of the pandemic.
Atmosphere will be an issue today, the U.S. defender Kelley O’Hara admitted in a conference call this week. And she said that she and her teammates would do their best to create a little of it — to get “loud” was her word.
“If we can be loud and communicative and just bring energy with our voices, because we’re going to be able to hear each other — which typically doesn’t happen when you step onto a pitch in a major tournament — I think that that can contribute to our energy and the vibe of the game,” she said.
We’ll see what we can hear: They have already tested the pumped-in crowd noise this evening. (Fake cheers! Not just for TV viewers anymore!)
Kelley O’Hara remembers all of it: the hot steamy day in Brasília, the resolute Swedish defense, the celebrations its players enjoyed and the despair of her own team, its dream of a second consecutive gold medal vanishing in a single, frustrating afternoon.
That match, a quarterfinal at the 2016 Rio Olympics won by Sweden in a penalty-kick shootout, was the last game the United States women’s team played in the Games. For five years, O’Hara said, she and her teammates have been itching to make it right.
“It feels like a big deal,” O’Hara said Tuesday. “It feels like the Olympics. It’s what we’ve waited now five years for, to be back here.”
It is perhaps fitting that the United States will open its latest pursuit of Olympic soccer gold on Wednesday with a game against Sweden. There is no team, in fact, that the Americans have faced more in world championship competition: six meetings in the World Cup, including the past five tournaments, and two more at the Olympics. Those collisions include the 2016 defeat in Brazil, which was the first time an American women’s team had returned from the Games without a medal.
“It’s a game and a loss that I’ve thought about a lot over the last five years,” said O’Hara, who started the game but watched its denouement helplessly from the bench after being substituted. “How are we going to get revenge? Hopefully we’re going to beat them.”
With games against Australia and New Zealand to come, the United States faces potentially its sternest test of the tournament against Sweden on opening day. The Swedes, the world’s fifth-ranked team, are the only side to deny the Americans a victory since January 2019, and the teams’ 1-1 tie in Stockholm in April is the only blemish on the unbeaten record of United States Coach Vlatko Andonovski (22-0-1). Only an 87th-minute penalty kick by Megan Rapinoe, in fact, prevented defeat that day.
Yet even for a veteran United States team with voluminous championship experience — 17 of the 18 players on the current squad lifted the World Cup two summers ago — almost nothing else about this year’s tournament will feel familiar: not the venues, and definitely not the pandemic conditions, which include the absence of family, friends and fans in the stands.
One thing that never changes is the stakes. The United States is trying to win the Olympic tournament for a record fifth time. But it also is trying — again — to become the first reigning Women’s World Cup champion to claim the Olympic gold. That was the goal in 2016, of course, but Sweden sent the Americans home empty-handed.
“I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t thought about that, and I think most people on the team have,” O’Hara said. “At the same time, I know what it takes to win a major tournament. For me it’s about focusing on the game right in front of me and the opponent that I’m going to play, so I don’t get too caught up in, ‘Oh, we’re going to make history, or do this or do that, or break this record or that record.’ To me it’s just, win the game.
“But that being said,” she quickly added of the possible World Cup-Olympic double, “it’d be very cool.”
Here’s Sweden’s lineup. A few of the players on its team also started in Sweden’s 1-1 tie with the United States in April. Caroline Seger, 36, is the captain. Kosovare Asllani is probably the player you, and the U.S. team, want to keep a close eye on.
There are no fans at Tokyo Stadium, but organizers are running through the pregame period as if it’s a full house, blasting music and showing videos on the jumbotron, including one explaining the rules of soccer. (These types of explainers will probably feel more appropriate once the more obscure sports begin at these Games.)
They’re explaining the rules of soccer on the jumbotron at Tokyo Stadium: “The team that scores more goals wins.”
— Andrew Keh (@andrewkeh) July 21, 2021
The United States lineup is out and the only thing that qualifies as a surprise is Megan Rapinoe starting on the bench. She is not injured; that’s just a coach’s decision.
Wednesday’s game is being broadcast by USA Network and Telemundo in the United States, and it is also available on the NBC Sports and Telemundo Deportes streaming platforms, and at NBCOlympics.com.
If you missed the match, it will be replayed on NBCSN at 8:30 a.m. Eastern time and 6 p.m. Eastern.
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