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The competitive portion of the London Games begins Wednesday, two days before the opening ceremony and far removed from the nonstop Olympic freneticism of the British capital. And several local women will be on hand to kick off the competition.
Soccer is one of two sports that starts early -- archery is the other -- because the extra days are needed to play a sufficient slate of games that doesn't wear out the players.
Three women with New Jersey ties -- team captain Christie Rampone, Jersey Shore at heart; Tobin Heath, the first overall pick in the 2010 women's pro draft who hails from Basking Ridge; and former Rutgers player Carli Lloyd -- will attempt to help their team win its third gold.
The Americans start group play against France at historic Hampden Park, the only Scottish venue for the Summer Games. One can barely walk 20 feet in London without noticing something that has to do with the Olympics, but the buzz in Glasgow just isn't the same. Some 37,000 fans are expected for the U.S.-France, Colombia-North Korea doubleheader in the 52,000-seat stadium, but organizers say about 80 percent of the tickets were freebies given to schools and local clubs because women's soccer isn't much of a draw in these parts.
U.S. coach Pia Sundhage gave her news conference in a nearly empty auditorium — there were far more volunteers than journalists — and the players are staying in a regular downtown hotel instead of an Olympic village. The two-time defending champs will have to make the gold-medal game to be assured of playing in London, and they won't be attending Friday's opening ceremony because they have an afternoon game against Colombia in Glasgow the next day.
"It's too much on the body and the mind to fly back and forth. The focus is on the games and that's the most important thing," Rampone said. "I would love for this team to experience an opening ceremonies because you kind of get that feeling of what the actual games are all about, with all the other countries and meeting different athletes from your own country. At the same time, getting to start it off with that first match of the Olympics is something special as well. We'll celebrate it together, and watch the opening ceremonies."
Starting early means a quicker end to the agonizing wait, which is a good thing for the Americans. They've been training in Glasgow for a week after spending the previous week in Darlington, England, and they've become a bit antsy.
"You can feel the tension start to rise," goalkeeper Hope Solo said. "It's a good, positive energy, and people are going into tackles harder. It's like 'unleash the beast.' We're waiting for somebody to unleash us."
And, of course, a game played before the opening ceremony counts just as much as the ones that are played afterward, and this one is a big one. France finished fourth at last year's World Cup after giving the Americans a scare in the semifinals and is riding an remarkable 17-game winning streak. Even though the U.S. is considered the gold medal favorite, it's not inconceivable to see an early upset that throws the tournament wide open.
"It won't be that easy for the USA to win against us," France coach Bruno Bini said. "It will be a really tough match."
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