The women's tournament at the Olympics is wide open, but don't expect too much to change from the Women's World Cup.
The FIFA Women's World Cup was just one year ago, and most of the teams that participated in that tournament are still intact. Japan, the United States, Sweden, France and Brazil will be bringing their best players from last summer to London in an attempt to win a gold medal. The best team not participating in the tournament is Germany, who missed out on a spot via their upset quarterfinal loss to Japan in the World Cup. UEFA did not have a qualifying tournament and instead took the two best placed teams from the World Cup, Sweden and France.
A top women's football competition without Germany seems very, very weird. Also unfortunately missing are Equatorial Guinea, who were disqualified from CAF qualification for fielding an ineligible player. They weren't going to contend for a medal, but that unfortunate mistake has robbed us of the opportunity to watch the unstoppable Genoveva Añonma for three games.
Unlike the men's tournament, the women's football tournament at the Olympics has no age restrictions. These players are the best of the best.
The Slight Favorites - Japan
You'll be hard pressed to find an American who doesn't favor their team in a rematch of last year's World Cup final, but it's hard to pick against Japan when they have the exact same team intact, even though the United States rolled in the last friendly match between the two teams. All 14 players that played in the final are on the Olympic roster, led by captain and World Cup Golden Ball winner Homare Sawa. They should be among the most cohesive squads at the Olympics due to their familiarity with each other, and they're arguably the best women's team in the world at keeping the ball.
The big sides in the team should have a serious advantage over Japan on set pieces because of their lack of size, but it certainly didn't hurt them in the World Cup. They also got through the Olympic qualifying tournament undefeated and beat Australia back in September on the road to London.
Expected Finalists - The United States
The gap between the United States and everyone in the world other than Germany has shrunk to the point of being nearly non-existent. Thanks to the increasing level of play in the UEFA Women's Champions League and domestic leagues outside of Germany, the USWNT can't walk to the semifinals of any tournament. They will face stiff challenges in the Olympics, but they're still co-favorites alongside Japan for the gold medal.
The USWNT has experienced one big loss from their World Cup squad. Ali Krieger tore her ACL in Olympic qualifying and is unavailable. Veteran Heather Mitts and winger-turned-fullback Kelley O'Hara are her replacements, with O'Hara likely to get the nod at right back. Amy Rodriguez is probably going to see less time than she did at the World Cup, and could play on the wing instead of at forward. Alex Morgan will play a more prominent role, along with Tobin Heath, while 22-year-old forward Sydney Leroux is an athletic bench option. Most of the starting XI will be recognizable from the World Cup, including 37-year-old captain Christie Rampone, who hasn't slowed down a bit.
Related: 2012 Olympics: Men's football tournament preview
Bronze Medal Favorites - France
Olympique Lyonnais is the nearly undisputed top women's club team on earth, and the majority of their starting XI plays for France. Eugenie Le Sommer and Camille Abily scored nine goals each in the Champions League this season, tied for first. They'll be set up for chances on a regular basis by Louisa Necib, and there's plenty of talent behind Le Sommer at striker. No one's deeper than France up top, but their center of midfield and defense let them down in the World Cup.
Laura Georges anchors the center of defense, but France failed to find a good partner for her last year. The other center back spot was a revolving door, and will need to be solved early in the group stages for Les Bleues to challenge the United States and Japan for gold. The United States and France are both in Group G, and play each other on July 25 to kick off their Olympics campaigns.
Other Main Contenders - Great Britain, Brazil, Sweden
Great Britain are in similar situations in the men's and women's tournaments. They're the hosts and will have the benefit of the home crowd behind them, but they have the fourth or fifth best squad in the tournament. They're going to have to pull off some truly spectacular performances to medal, but they have the squad to do it. The England team that took France to penalties in the World Cup quarterfinals is intact, plus a couple of great additions. Scots Ifeoma Dieke and Kim Little compliment an already great team. Unfortunately, fellow Scot Julie Fleeting did not want to represent Great Britain.
Brazil are not a deep team and their defense is very questionable, but they have the best player in the world. Marta's helped guide Brazil to runners-up finishes in the 2007 World Cup and 2008 Olympics, but they're yet to win one of the big two international tournaments. Cristiane will join Marta in attack, while veteran defensive midfielders Ester and Formiga will be key to Brazil's success.
Sweden finished third at the World Cup, and they should have an excellent chance to repeat that success, though it's hard to argue that they're more talented than France. They have Lyon's biggest foreign star in forward Lotta Schelin, who made the team of the tournament at the World Cup, and she'll be expected to score goals. More often than not, it'll be Caroline Seger, one of the best creators in women's football, setting her up. Sweden have seen some turnover in their roster, and they're without some of their key players from their World Cup team, such as Sara Larsson, Jessica Landstrom and Josefine Öqvist.
Dark Horses - North Korea, Canada
Canada finished dead last at the 2011 World Cup and got waxed by the United States in the final of the CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament, but they looked much better in a warm-up friendly in June, where they lost 2-1 to the USWNT. They don't have the strength in depth to hang with France, Sweden and Great Britain, but Christine Sinclair might be the best player on any of those teams. It's tough to completely count out a team with a player as good as Cincy.
I'd be lying if I said I have extensive knowledge about North Korea, but they drew Japan in Olympic qualifying and held their own in the last World Cup. They shouldn't get blown out by anyone and could get a rematch with Japan in the quarterfinals.
The rest of the field
Cameroon - They probably wouldn't be here if Equatorial Guinea didn't field an ineligible player in qualifying. Should almost certainly finish fourth in Group E.
New Zealand - Surprisingly, they did pretty well for themselves at the World Cup and should defeat Cameroon to finish third in the group. They could grab a quarterfinal spot with three points.
South Africa - Somehow managed to get to the Olympics without having to play any of Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea or Nigeria. Congrats! They will probably lose all three games.
Colombia - They drew a nasty group and will do well to not get creamed by the United States and France. They were in North Korea's group at the World Cup and the two sides drew 0-0. They play in the first round of group play instead of the last this time around, and one will probably have to beat the other for Group G to have three quarterfinal representatives.