(CBS Local)- The United States Women's National Team (USWNT) kicks off its quest for the Olympic gold medal in the early morning hours of Wednesday when the team takes on Sweden in group stage play at 4:30 a.m. Eastern Time. The U.S. enters the tournament as heavy favorites and Vlatko Andonovski's team is hoping to avenge its fifth place result from Rio in 2016.
The USWNT has gone unbeaten in 44 straight matches but CBSSports.com soccer writer and host of the Attacking Third podcast, Sandra Herrera, says the U.S. performance in their last 5-10 games has been particularly impressive answering some of the questions people had about the team.
"This is a team led by head coach Vlatko Andonovski that wanted to see certain things come to light ahead of this Olympic Games and we started to see that when they started getting back into camps and getting back into international friendlies because a lot of these players had to deal with certain things amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic," Herrera said in an interview with CBS Local's Ryan Mayer. "Coming away with all of these wins and all of these results, they were getting some questions answered. A player like Tobin Heath who had been injured, an integral part of this attack. Was she going to be fit? Was she going to be ready in time for the Olympics? Here she comes in the final two matches, lighting things up and letting everybody know she has returned. There's a lot of strengths across this 22 player roster. They're the team to compete against in these Summer Games."
There are many familiar faces on this Olympic squad from both the 2019 World Cup winning team and the Rio 2016 Olympic team, so fans will have plenty of recognizable names to cheer for. One that Herrera thinks could become more of a household name in this tournament as a recent returnee to national team play is Kristie Mewis.
"She hasn't been involved with the national team for the last six years. She really played her way back into this stage off of the back of impressive club play," Herrera said. "We're talking club play with the Houston Dash of the NWSL where they went on to win the 2020 Challenge Cup final. Impressive in the midfield, was a big piece of that team, integral in that championship final. She's a player that could possible have an impact in this Olympics."
While many of the questions were answered and the U.S. enters with clear strengths at every level of the field, Herrera points to the back line as an area that opponents could look to exploit if they're looking for weaknesses.
"If you're looking to try to find someone, it's so hard but if you're the opposition, you're looking maybe at that back line. Crystal Dunn is quite frankly one of their better defenders. She's an attacking outside back, she has the ability to cover a lot of space out on the flank," Herrera said. "But, when you're looking at the center back duo or maybe the veteran outside back in Kelley O'Hara, there might be some looks from the opposition where they say, 'hey, there's maybe a little bit of lack of speed, maybe a lack of pace, maybe we can try to expose those areas.' But, we'll see. They're going to have to catch these defenders on a real off day."
All that said, the U.S. as Herrera noted, is the team to beat entering the tournament. The group stage will see them face Sweden, New Zealand and Australia and it's the Swedes that Herrera points to as the biggest threat to a U.S. medal.
"Hands down it's absolutely Sweden. They've been a rival of the USWNT for many years," Herrera said. "There's a lot of history there between these two sides. Their games have always been very tense, close, tightly contested matches and we're probably going to see something similar to start off this group stage. If I'm the USWNT, I'm looking at this and embracing it for the challenge that it is because these two teams are going to be kicking off their Olympic journeys going head-to-head in that very first group match. It's probably going to tell us a lot about how that group shakes out."
Here is the USWNT's full group stage schedule including the channel you can catch them on.
Wednesday, July 21 vs. Sweden 4:30 a.m. EDT (USA Network)
Saturday, July 24 vs. New Zealand 7:30 a.m. EDT (NBC Sports Network)
Tuesday, July 27 vs. Australia 4:00 a.m. EDT (USA Network)
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