LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The scenario appears perfect for the U.S. women to capture the inaugural Gold Cup.
All they have to do is beat Canada — a team they've defeated 20 times in a row — in the opening game, then watch major powers Brazil and China wear each other out in the nightcap in Saturday's semifinals.
That should leave the Americans mentally and physically fresher than their opponents in Monday night's championship game in Foxboro, Mass.
Just to reinforce the point, it's worth noting that the United States has outscored Canada 91-9 during the winning streak, including 4-0 and 9-1 victories this year. The last time — and only time — the Canadians beat their North American neighbors was a 2-1 victory in Blaine, Minn., on July 9, 1986, long before international women's soccer was a cover story for major news magazines.
Furthermore, the U.S. team is preparing for the Olympics. Canada didn't even qualify, and new coach Even Pellerud is rebuilding with promising but young talent.
This, of course, is when the great upsets happen. Fortunately for the Americans, they are saying the right things and not giving any hints about looking past the semis.
"We're pretty good at taking each game as it is," defenseman Joy Fawcett said Friday. "We can't look past Canada, because if you do, that's when you get beat. You have to play all the good teams to win a tournament."
One reason not to be complacent is that Pellerud, former coach of some great Norway teams, is making more rapid progress and anyone expected. Canada has already pulled one monumental upset this year, beating China on penalty kicks in the Pacific Cup in Australia three weeks ago. In a rematch earlier this week, China escaped with a 3-2 victory.
But, in that same Pacific Cup, the Canadians were routed 9-1 by the Americans, and the gulf between the two teams again looked huge.
"Everything we hit was going in, the rhythm and the level of play was just phenomenal," midfielder Shannon MacMillan said. "I remember at halftime thinking, 'Wow, that was so much fun.' It was one of those nights when you could try something you wouldn't normally do and it worked.
"But we can never take them for granted, they've become a great team. They beat China in the Pacific Cup and scored two goals on China the other night. They're a team to be reckoned with."
The United States has nothing but luck to thank for its current position in the Gold Cup. After a 0-0 tie with Brazil in group play, a coin flip was needed to determine the semifinal pairings. The U.S. team could easily have faced China in the semis and Brazil in the finals two days later, a formidable back-to-back challenge even for the World Cup champions.