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U.S. Women's Soccer Gets At Early Start At 2012 London Olympics

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US WOMENS SOCCER
United States' Abby Wambach, second from left, celebrates with Shannon Boxx, left, and Alex Morgan (13) after scoring against China during the first half of their international friendly soccer match in Chester, Pa., Sunday, May 27, 2012. | AP

GLASGOW, Scotland (AP) — More than 400 miles from center stage, the coach of the U.S. women's soccer team leaned toward the microphone and gave her own musical opening to the Olympic Games.

"Have a little faith in me," sang Pia Sundhage, channeling John Hiatt in perfect pitch — complete with a soulful flourish at the end.

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. 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.

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.

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," captain Christie 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."

It's also a tough call to decide which coach is more entertaining. Both are seize-the-moment optimists who like to sing songs to their players — Bini even writes some of his own — and both are big on inspirational quotes. At his news conference, Bini managed to turn nearly every question into some sort of punch line.

Asked about having to play the tough Americans first, he said: "My dream was to play Liechtenstein, Luxembourg and San Marino, but unfortunately none of them qualified."

Asked if he would match Sundhage and give a preview of a song he might sing to his players Wednesday, he declined: "The American coach already wins this match."

He also laughed when asked if he was surprised by his team's comfortable 2-0 win over World Cup champion Japan in a warmup match last week: "It's always the same story with journalists. All the time when we win against a really good team, it means that they were just really weak. So it means we are never really good."

As for Sundhage, she said her American squad is "healthy and happy," as well as stronger and more diverse than in previous years with talent to spare. Her toughest decisions might come when it's time to send on the substitutes.

"We have game-winners on the bench," Sundhage said. "And they will win the game for us."

By the way, Sundhage said her "Have a Little Faith in Me" ditty shouldn't be seen as an egomaniacal plea to believe in the coach. It's meant to be a sentiment that every player can express.

"If everybody has that feeling out there," she said, "we will have a good game."

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Joseph White can be reached at http://twitter.com/JGWhiteAP

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