CSN Mid-Atlantic's Sebastian Salazar is at the Rio Olympics covering the U.S. Women's National Soccer Team. He'll be sharing regular updates from Brazil via CSNmidatlantic.com and on Twitter (@SebiSalazarCSN) and Facebook (facebook.com/SebiSalazarCSN).
While the Opening Ceremonies are still a few days away, Wednesday marks the beginning of the women's soccer tournament at the Rio Olympics. The U.S. Women open their gold-medal defense against New Zealand Wednesday at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN.
Jill Ellis's team is the clear front runner, but a look at Bookmaker.EU odds provide a better idea of how much the Americans are favored, which teams could potentially upset them and how the rest of the field should fare in Rio.
Aiming for a fourth straight gold medal, the American women are the prohibitive favorites in Rio. Instead of rebuilding after their World Cup triumph last summer, the U.S. simply reloaded. Abby Wambach is long retired, but newcomers Lindsay Horan, Mallory Pugh and Crystal Dunn are more than ready to compliment the likes of Hope Solo, Alex Morgan and Carli Lloyd. Trying to become the first team to win a World Cup and Olympics in back-to-back years provides further motivation for Jill Ellis’ stacked team.
There was a time when Germany was the class of the women’s international game, winning consecutive World Cups in 2003 and 2007, but the generation of players responsible for those victories has largely moved on. Nadine Angerer – the first goalie (man or woman) to win FIFA Player of the Year honors – retired last year and both Celia Sasic (personal choice) and Nadine Kessler (injury) have stepped away from the national team before their 30th birthdays. Eight of Germany’s 18 players are 25 or under, so their favorable odds may have more to do with reputation than the realities of the current roster.
Brazil is about as mercurial a team as you’ll find in this field, with the ability to both dazzle and implode at a moments notice. Their stars are aging, but Marta (30) and Cristiane (31) are still dangerous and both are coming off solid seasons with their respective European clubs. As host nation it comes as no surprise that Brazil finds itself in the easiest group and that should set up a relatively easy quarterfinal match. Should the Brazilians advance to the semis, they’ll be embraced by a soccer-mad nation desperate for a winner. With a home crowd behind this talented – if not always consistent – team, anything is possible.
Though France’s ascension to the top-tier of women’s soccer is well documented, they’ve never truly gotten over the hump. A 90th minute goal cost the French a bronze medal in London, and penalty kicks denied them a semifinal spot at last summer’s World Cup. That said, this team figures to be the one to break through. Amadine Henry, Wendie Renard and Eugénie Le Sommer were all FIFPro World XI selections last year and Elodie Thomis is one of the fastest players you’ll ever see. While an underdog to the Americans, expect France to challenge the U.S. for Group G’s top spot. Should they take it, that +650 will look like a great bet.
While a repeat of their 2012 bronze-medal performance would be a surprise, the Canadians should feel somewhat harshly done by these long odds. Canada’s most recent performance saw them go toe-to-toe with France (and at times look the better team) in a 1-0 defeat on French soil. Christine Sinclair will again lead the line, and her strike rate (3 goals, 7 games played) this NWSL season suggests the aging veteran can still produce. With longtime starter Erin McLeod injured, Stephanie Labbe takes over the #1 goalie spot. How she performs could determine just how far Canada goes.
Sweden arrived in the field at Rio via the back door, qualifying only because Great Britain didn’t send a team. That said, former U.S. coach Pia Sundhage knows how to navigate the Olympic tournament, having won the last two gold medals with the USWNT. Frankly, the Swedes looked slow while going winless at last summer’s World Cup, though they seem to be trying to address that by bringing in some younger players.
How Australia has odds this much worse than Canada and Sweden is strange to say the least. The Matildas have tons of physicality, talent and pace – especially in volatile attacker Lisa De Vanna, who can absolutely take over a game on her own. They should easily advance out of Group F, but if the Aussies can’t avoid doing so as a third-place team, it will seriously hurt their chances of surviving the quarterfinal round.
Per usual China, will be a very difficult team to defeat, but it’s also hard to imagine them beating any of the top-tier teams, let alone doing so multiple times as would be required to reach the medal stand. Converted defender Wang Shanshan has shown a penchant for scoring crucial goals, while 6-foot-1 goalie Zhao Lina has proven she can singlehandedly keep the Chinese in any contest.
New Zealand (+9000)
With some high-quality players – Abby Erceg, Katie Bowen and Ali Riley – along their back line, the Football Ferns will be very difficult to break down. Add to that a strong goalkeeper in Erin Nayler and you can understand why New Zealand are poised to reach the knockout phase despite the difficulty of their group. From there, little will be expected.
After a great World Cup last summer, Colombia have somehow managed to waste away all their momentum heading into the Olympics. First off, the Colombians have hardly played since Canada, going almost 9 months without a match at one point. Beyond that, the absences of stars Yoreli Rincon (broken fibula) and Daniela Montoya (manager’s choice) make an already difficult draw borderline impossible.
South Africa (+15000)
South Africa drew some well-earned praise for their extremely organized defensive performance against the United States in a recent friendly. Though unlikely, an upset over China or Sweden shouldn’t be ruled out completely. And that would likely be enough to see South Africa through to a quarterfinal.
The unquestioned minnows of this 12-team tournament, it’s hard to envision Zimbabwe scoring a goal, let alone notching a point against tough Group F competition. Still, these are way better odds than Leicester City were getting before the last Premier League season and we all know how that turned out.