For all that’s been said about the U.S. women’s soccer team this year, there has been unusually little talk about the Olympics’ biggest soccer story line.

In the 25 years since women’s soccer became an Olympic sport, no reigning World Cup champion has ever won gold at the following Summer Games.

Not the U.S. superpowers of the 1990s and today; not the German dynasty that won back-to-back World Cups in the 2000s. There have been six opportunities for it to happen, and it never has.

The question of why has been out there ever since women’s soccer joined the Summer Games in 1996. There have been lots of answers over time, from post-World Cup fatigue (and in recent years, a deluge of sponsor commitments) to increased parity in the sport. And of course, a knockout competition always produces upsets.

This year, the U.S. women will be the seventh reigning World Cup champion to try to win Olympic gold. Will they break the hex, or will they be the latest team to succumb to it?

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The history

Norway had the first chance after winning the 1995 World Cup in Sweden, a tournament in which it beat the United States — reigning World Cup champion from 1991 — in the semifinals. The Americans got revenge in the 1996 Olympics, beating Norway in the semifinals and China in the gold medal game.

You need only mention the year 1999 to know what happened that summer at the Rose Bowl. But a year later in Sydney, Australia, Norway dethroned the dynasty led by Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Brandi Chastain, and Briana Scurry with a 3-2 extra time win in the gold medal game.

Germany won back-to-back women’s World Cups in 2003 and 2007, including a win over the U.S. in Portland, Ore., in the 2003 semifinals. Yet there were Olympic semifinal losses in 2004 and 2008, to the U.S. in the former tournament and Brazil in the latter. The Americans beat Brazil in both gold medal games.

Japan won the 2011 World Cup, beating a resurgent American team in the final. The next summer in London, the U.S. beat Japan in the final, 2-1, with Carli Lloyd scoring both — the second straight gold medal game in which she scored the winner.

In 2015, Lloyd led the Americans back to the World Cup summit, with a hat trick in the final to crown a 5-2 win over Japan and end a 16-year World Cup title drought. But a year later in Brazil, Sweden stunned the U.S. with a penalty kick shootout win in the quarterfinals, leaving the Americans with their worst-ever major tournament finish.

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The current cycle began in 2019, when the U.S. ran over the most stacked women’s World Cup field ever. The Americans won all seven games without needing penalty kicks, a feat never achieved by their legendary predecessors. (The 2015 team tied Sweden in the group stage, the 1999 final went to penalties, and the 1991 team played six games in a 12-team field.)

More than just favorites

The COVID-19 pandemic’s delaying of the Olympics by a year means that this tournament is the first that has not come in the year right after a World Cup.

The extra rest players have had as a result means that the post-World Cup fatigue often cited by title-winners (including a deluge of off-field sponsor commitments) isn’t as much of a factor. But of course, the pandemic has created an entirely different set of challenges.

Just ask American star Alex Morgan, one of many Olympians barred from bringing their young children to Japan in order to reduce the number of foreigners entering the country.

Though the world has changed a lot since 2019, the top of the Olympic odds board is the same. The U.S. is the overwhelming favorite to win gold, thanks to its stacked squad and a weaker-than-usual field. European powers France and Germany failed to qualify, while usual contenders Canada, Great Britain, and Australia have been underwhelming lately.

The Americans’ top rivals for gold are likely to be the Netherlands, led by prolific forwards Vivianne Miedema and Lieke Martens, and Brazil, led by dazzling playmakers Marta and Debinha. Japan could be a dark horse, playing at home with a young squad that’s been growing toward this summer.

But really, it’s the U.S. vs. the field. And the odds became even better when FIFA and the IOC recently agreed to expand Olympic rosters from 18 players to 22. The Americans’ depth is their greatest asset, and the four players who had been alternates — forward Lynn Williams, playmaker Catarina Macario, defender Casey Krueger, and third-string goalkeeper Jane Campbell — will now be available for games.

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Though game day rosters will remain at 18 players, having all 22 players to pick from means U.S. coach Vlatko Andonovski can rotate his team as much as he needs to across the group stage’s three games in seven days.

Extra motivation

The truth is, the U.S. team’s quest to make history hasn’t come up much because it hasn’t needed to. The women’s soccer world already knows, and doesn’t need reminding — especially this U.S. team’s veterans, who are trying to do what Hamm, Abby Wambach, and so many others couldn’t.

Yes, this team is ready to play with a chip on its shoulder again, even as women’s soccer’s biggest superpower.

The players haven’t forgotten how much they were criticized for running up the score in the 2019 World Cup, by the same kinds of people who lavish praise on men’s sports teams who do the same. Sweden is too good a team to let that happen, No. 5 in FIFA’s global rankings.

But if the door opens elsewhere in the tournament, don’t be surprised if the Americans charge right through it.

They’ve already found motivation beyond the field. As Morgan packed her bags for the flight, instead of packing supplies for Charlie she packed fuel for her fire.

“I’m going to miss my baby girl so much this month,” she wrote on Instagram. “Charlie girl, I’ll make it worth it!”

You could feel the rest of the world shudder as they read.

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U.S. women’s soccer Olympic schedule

Wednesday, July 21: vs. Sweden at Tokyo Stadium, Chōfu, 4:30 a.m. (USA Network, Telemundo)

Saturday, July 24: vs. New Zealand at Saitama Stadium, Saitama, 7:30 a.m. (NBCSN, Telemundo)

Tuesday, July 27: vs. Australia at Ibaraki Kashima Stadium, Kashima (USA Network, Telemundo)

Friday, July 30: Quarterfinal TBD, likely 6 a.m. or 7 a.m. (NBCSN, Spanish-language coverage for the knockout rounds is still TBD)

Monday, Aug. 2: Semifinal TBD, 4 a.m. or 7 a.m. (USA Network)

Thursday, Aug. 5: Bronze medal game, 4 a.m. (USA Network)

Friday, Aug. 6: Gold medal game, 10 p.m. (USA Network, with NBC simulcasting the end starting at 11:30)

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