The Olympics are finally back. The Rio Games aren't officially kicking off until Friday, but soccer is always treated a bit differently -- the women's tournament begins Wednesday and the USA start in Belo Horizonte, 270 miles away from Rio.
The Americans come into this 12-team tournament as the clear favorites. They've won gold medals at the last three Olympics and they've never done worse than silver. On top of it, they won the World Cup last summer, although it's a bit of a double-edged sword: no team has ever won a Women's World Cup and then won gold in the following Olympics.
If the USWNT wants to make history, it will need to take it one match at a time. Here is a breakdown of the USA's first match of the group stage:
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Group G opener: USWNT vs. New Zealand, Wednesday at 6 p.m. ET
USWNT roster notes: The USWNT enters the match without Megan Rapinoe as a viable option, but that is by design. Coach Jill Ellis made the risky choice to put Rapinoe on the small 18-player roster despite her not playing since December, and Rapinoe has since said she doesn't expect to play their first game of the tournament.
Winger Tobin Heath and central midfielder Morgan Brian have had some minor hamstring injuries that kept them from starting in the final send-off match on July 22, but there's reason to believe Ellis was being cautious. Still, the U.S. does have viable back-up options, which Ellis could look to if she wants to give either Heath or Brian more time.
USWNT projected XI:
The Americans will want to start out the gate strong with their preferred line-up in Ellis' version of a 4-2-3-1. Alex Morgan will lead the charge up top with Carli Lloyd tucked underneath, roaming in the attack. That will leave Lindsay Horan and either Brian or Allie Long to share box-to-box duties in the midfield. Ellis may give Brian some rest because she figures to be important for the later stages.
With Rapinoe out of the question, the likely tandem along the flanks is Heath on the left and Crystal Dunn on the right. Heath has had some slight hamstring injuries, but assuming Heath is able to start, she seems like the likely choice. Rookie Mallory Pugh, at just 18 years old, may have earned a starting spot, but Ellis may be keen to bring the youngster on later and gradually introduce her to the experience of a major tournament with the senior USWNT.
The back line we see in the opening group match figures to be the back four that starts for the entire tournament, knowing Ellis. Fullbacks Meghan Klingenberg and Kelley O'Hara will be expected to push up high and get into the attack, rotating and interchanging in the midfield as plays develop.
What to know about New Zealand: The Football Ferns, as they are known, had a pretty rough go of it last summer in Canada, winning no matches and exiting in the group stage of the World Cup. They did make the quarterfinals at London 2012 and they have the talent to try to make a run again. Coming off an injury earlier this year, University of Tennessee striker Hannah Wilkinson looks like New Zealand's most likely scoring threat due to her speed and power in the box. Other scoring threats to watch include Sarah Gregorius and Amber Hearn, who with Wilkinson are their top scorers.
Their chances against the U.S. look worse than their overall chances, though. The Ferns last faced U.S. in April 2015, when the Americans walloped them 4-0. The U.S. has beaten New Zealand 11 times, losing just once in 1987 and tying once in 2013. The Ferns will likely have a difficult time on both sides of the ball against a well-stacked U.S. team.
Projected outcome: The Americans should win relatively easily. Tournaments are weird and anything can happen, but the Americans should coast to a comfortable 2-0 win.
The American defense will be very difficult for New Zealand to break down, and even if they do, beating goalkeeper Hope Solo is no easy task. The Americans' fast-paced and interchanging attack should overwhelm New Zealand, even if some tournament jitters hamper what could be a blowout.
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