Women's soccer at the London Games: what you need to know

You've seen the countdowns, seen "July 27" in a thousand places, maybe even marked your calendars. But whatever the Opening Ceremonies might suggest, the Olympics actually begin July 25, when the women's soccer tournament kicks off with all 12 teams in action across six matches. Here's what you need to know about the tournament. Men's breakdown is here.

Can Abby Wambach and the rest of Team USA make it three straight Olympic gold medals? (Getty Images)

THE BASICS: 12 teams are split into three groups of four, with round-robin group play sending the top two in each group and two best third-place teams to bracketed quarterfinals. Group E is composed of Great Britain, New Zealand, Cameroon and Brazil; Group F Japan, Canada, Sweden, South Africa; and Group G USA, France, Colombia and North Korea.

Group play is scheduled for July 25-31, quarters Aug. 3, semis Aug. 6, finals at London's historic Wembley Stadium Aug. 9. The opening match -- and the first competitive event of the Olympics -- will be hosts Great Britain facing New Zealand in Cardiff, Wales at 11 a.m. Eastern.

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THE FAVORITE: Call us biased -- it's Team USA, you wouldn't be all that wrong -- but it would be hard to go against the two-time defending Olympic champions from the United States regardless of your nationality. The Americans have the best goalkeeper in the world in Hope Solo, the best striking tandem in the world in Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan, a multitude of dangerous attacking midfielders -- starting with the in-form Megan Rapinoe -- and one of the world's steadiest defenders in captain Christie Rampone. Oh, they also come into the tournament playing some of their best soccer and boast both more collective experience and athleticism than any other team in the field. 

No, they didn't win the World Cup last summer. But they should have after dominating most of regulation play in the final vs. Japan, and the U.S. didn't finish higher than third in the 2003 or 2007 World Cups, either; it didn't make any difference come Athens or Beijing. With the world's No. 2-ranked team, Germany, sitting at home after last summer's stunning World Cup quarterfinal loss and the Americans whipping Japan 4-1 in their most recent meeting, no other squad looks as primed for gold as Team USA.

THE CHALLENGER: The U.S. has played 16 matches in calendar year 2012 and won all but two. That would be even more encouraging if both of those "two" didn't come against the same team--Japan, who followed up its World Cup win by beating the Americans 1-0 in Portugal March 5 and drawing them 1-1 on April 1 in Japan. The aforementioned 4-1 drubbing in Sweden June 18 was unquestionably nice for the U.S., but after going undefeated in three straight head-to-head matches vs. the world No. 1, the Japanese won't be intimidated.

They shouldn't be: their Spain-like precision passing is the best in the women's game and often a perfect antidote to the U.S.'s up-tempo pressure approach. Then there's midfielder Homare Sawa (right), the reigning FIFA Women's World Player of the Year and one of the handful of stars in the tournament that can turn a game singlehandedly. 

THE CONTENDERS: The U.S. won't get an easy introduction to the tournament, not against Group G co-favorite France, which hasn't lost since its 3-1 defeat in the World Cup semifinals to the U.S. last year. The French surprised many with both that run to the semifinals and an intelligent, free-flowing attack not entirely unlike the country's great men's teams. Maybe they don't have a Zinedine Zidane or Thierry Henry equivalent just yet, but outside midfield attacker Sonia Bompastor and prolific striker Marie-Laure Delie aren't bad substitutes. 

Brazil has still never won a major international tournament, and the clock is now rapidly ticking on the career of the brilliant Marta, who nearly beat the U.S. singlehandedly in the World Cup quarterfinals before Abby Wambach's famous last-last-second goal. The consensus has been that in the wake of that crushing defeat, Brazil's best days are behind them. But with the attacking firepower represented by Marta, Formiga, Cristiane, and others, it's still too soon to count the Samba Girls out. The defense is still likely too frail for them to win gold, but no one -- the U.S. included -- will be happy to see them in an elimination match.

If Kelly Smith isn't 100 percent healthy, Great Britain probably won't have any real shot at gold regardless of how much of a boost they receive from playing on their home soil--and whether Smith is healthy is very much up for debate after a broken leg suffered in March. But if the inspirational striker and playmaker is close to her usual self, a coordinated defense and the inevitable home-field advantage could make the Brits the tourney's surprise package.

THE PLAYERS TO WATCH: Fun fact: at nearly 537,000 of them, Alex Morgan (left) has more Twitter followers than Michael Phelps and Lolo Jones combined. Wambach and Solo might be the most familiar faces to casual fans entering the tournament, but the charismatic and, yes, photogenic Morgan's star is poised to go supernova with a big performance in London. Given her current form -- every bit as white-hot as Wambach -- we're not betting against her.

Her attitude might best be described as "prickly," her teams have never managed to get over the hump, and she's not the force she was when Brazil annihilated the U.S. 4-0 in a World Cup semifinal five years ago. But none of that means Marta is anything other than one of the greatest women's players to ever strap on a pair of cleats, and with three long years between London and the 2015 World Cup, this might be the last best chance to see her be her. With the possible exception of Sawa, no other player in the tournament is as likely to provide that moment of pure athletic artistry that makes soccer the sport it is.

It's not possible to have a major international women's tournament without a discussion of the "state of the game" and its particular failure to make more headway in Europe. The burden of expanding its reach in the host country this time falls on the Brits, which in turn means it falls largely on the shoulders of Kelly Smith, who back in the old W-USA days established herself as one of the most dangerous and most creative attackers in the world. If she can overcome her injury history and recapture that kind of form, she could become a national hero. But as Birgit Prinz and the Germans found out last summer, carrying the weight of an entire sport's hopes in your country is easier said than done.

THE MATCHES TO WATCH: U.S.A. vs. France, Group G, July 25, 12 p.m. Eastern. No doubt the opening match between the Brits and Kiwis will get all the attention on the other side of the pond(s), but the true gem of the tournament's opening day is this one between teams that love putting goals on the board--and could see each other a second time in the final. 

Great Britain vs. Brazil, Group E, July 31, 2:45 Eastern. The first match of the tournament at London's Wembley Stadium, the first women's match ever at arguably the most famous venue in soccer, and possibly the highest attendance for a women's Olympic match ever. (The current record was set in Athens ... Georgia, when the U.S. took on China in the 1996 gold-medal match.) Yeah, it's a big deal.

The final, teams TBA, Aug. 9, 2:45 Eastern. We're assuming the USWNT will be there. But even if they aren't--when a gold medal is up for grabs in a setting like Wembley, it's going to be worth tuning in.

*The men's groups are A, B, C, and D. Why the tournaments can't both have a group A, we couldn't tell you.

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