Two of the world’s best women’s soccer teams gave the Tokyo Olympics a dramatic start 48 hours before the opening ceremony when top-ranked United face Sweden on Wednesday.
The game will be played on a platform surrounded by issues. Delayed by a year by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Tokyo Games will go on despite a state of emergency and restrictions on spectators. About 80% of the Japanese population is opposed to hosting the three-week sports festival, which is expected to cost $15.4 billion.
The US-Sweden game, scheduled for 1:30 pm Pacific, will be broadcast live on USA Network and Telemundo. It is not only a struggle of world powers, but it is also a combination of animosity. Sweden had eliminated the United States on penalty kicks at the Rio Games five years earlier – the only time the Americans had failed to win a medal at the Olympics.
“It’s a loss I’ve thought about a lot over the past five years,” former Stanford star Kelly O’Hara said in a video call from Tokyo.
The men’s and women’s Olympic football tournaments traditionally begin two days before the opening ceremony because stadiums across the country with built-in rest days take time to organize.
Also starting early is softball, which has returned to the Olympics for the first time since 2008. The United States plays against Italy on Tuesday and against Canada in Fukushima on Wednesday.
The US Soccer opener is a major sporting moment for the Games. The Americans are trying to become the first country to win back-to-back World Cups and Olympics. They won the 2019 World Cup in France where they defeated Sweden 2-0 in group play.
The indomitable O’Hara won’t get bogged down in the historical value of winning the gold medal.
But “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think about it,” said O’Hara, a fullback in his third Olympics. “Probably most of the team has and probably has coaches and staff.”
The United States would know about their overall chances against a Swedish team, with some analysts saying it is as good as any team in the world. Swedish players are no longer a thing to fear from the Americans, who have won four of six Olympic tournaments for women, and finished second in 2000.
The veneer of invincibility has been eroded as players from both countries have become teammates or rivals in club competitions, including the National Women’s Football League.
For example, O’Hara and defender Emily Sonnet are Washington Spirit teammates along with Olympian Julia Roder of Sweden and Saori Takarada of Japan.
According to a Swedish reporter, Rodar called the Americans arrogant.
“Come on now,” said O’Hara. “I have to text him to say that. It’s not true. I don’t feel overly confident. I know what it takes to win a big tournament.”
US forward Lynn Williams of Fresno said Sweden presents a challenge because of its physical presence and organized structure.
“It’s going to be good viewing from a viewer’s point of view,” she said of the TV audience only.
O’Hara, one of nine players with Bay Area connections on the 22-women roster, said playing against Sweden adds to the intensity of the get-go because of the countries’ football histories.
“It can’t feel like a big tournament if we weren’t playing Sweden at some point,” she said.
The United States and Sweden drew 1-1 at an exhibition in Stockholm in April when Redding’s star Megan Rapinoe converted a late penalty kick. The games were played in an empty Friends Arena, perhaps a perfect preparation for the Olympics.
The Americans will face New Zealand without O’Hara’s Stanford teammate Ali Riley on Saturday and the group match against No.8 Australia ends next Tuesday.
Williams wishes to include the event’s competition in her first Olympics.
“But health comes first,” she said. “We will do whatever we have to do to stay healthy, to make sure that not only are all athletes healthy, but that Japanese citizens are healthy as well.”
O’Hara said Americans hope their energetic voices can create the atmosphere of a big game in a fanless setting. But they are ready for whatever comes.
“It’s still going to feel very special,” she said.