In the summer of 1999, a soccer-crazed 11-year-old grew so infatuated with the U.S. women's World Cup run that she and her friends in Indianapolis put together what they called "playbooks." A lot of kids fantasize about winning the big game, but Lauren Cheney took the dream a step further, diagramming in exquisite detail the tactics that would lead them to a championship. "I was such a nerd," she says. "I'd have formations and things set up that I thought would win us a gold medal. I was always really pumped about the Olympics."
Thirteen years later Cheney and the U.S. will have the chance to defend their 2008 Olympic gold in London this summer as long as they reach the final of the eight-team CONCACAF qualifying tournament in Vancouver from Jan. 19 to 29. It's the U.S.'s first competitive test since last summer's heartbreaking loss to Japan in the World Cup final, and no player is having to adjust more than Cheney, who in the past year has moved like a chess piece from forward to winger to attacking central midfielder. The increased reliance on Cheney (and a new 4-2-3-1 formation) is part of coach Pia Sundhage's own evolving playbook. "She reads the game well, and she embraces change," Sundhage says of Cheney. "She brings out the best from her teammates."
Cheney, who replaced injured striker Abby Wambach on the 2008 Olympic team, had never played on the flank until the '11 World Cup, yet she was one of the U.S.'s most dangerous threats, combining well with teammates and cutting inside to unspool shots from distance. Her new position is as a more traditional central playmaker in a possession-style attack. "Pia has pretty much given me a free role," Cheney says. "If I want to go all the way to the back line to get the ball, I can do that, but it depends on the game. It's been fun, but this is a new position right now. I have to learn as much as I can and ask as many questions as possible."
Her instincts are pretty good, though. Cheney is dating 76ers point guard Jrue Holiday, whom she met at UCLA. (Both are former Bruins.) "As a point guard it's all about vision and seeing the court," she says. "That's how I see soccer: I'm always wanting to combine with other players. It's funny—when Jrue watches me play, he'll comment on my vision, and when I watch him, that's what I'm looking for too."
Holiday may still be learning the finer points of soccer, but he's got a good eye for passing talent. If Cheney reaches her playmaking potential, the U.S. will be favored to win its third straight gold medal.
THE MEN EYE A MEDAL
The U.S. men's Olympic effort will be an intriguing test of young pros—the tournament is for under-23 players, plus up to three per team of any age—to say nothing of a new coach. Caleb Porter took over in October, having led Akron to the '10 NCAA title, and his first test will come during March qualifying. Not all of the U.S.'s European pros will be released for the eight-team CONCACAF tournament, but if the Yanks finish in the top two and make it to London, their roster could include recognizable and rising U-23s such as forwards Jozy Altidore, Juan Agudelo, Teal Bunbury and Terrence Boyd; midfielders Brek Shea, Freddy Adu, Mix Diskerud and Joe Gyau; defender Timmy Chandler; and goalkeeper Bill Hamid. Porter's overage picks will depend on positional needs; midfielder Michael Bradley and backliners Carlos Bocanegra and Jay DeMerit would bring valuable experience.
The men's best finish came in 2000, when a team with Landon Donovan and Brad Friedel lost in the semis to Spain and finished fourth. This year's edition has the talent to finally earn some hardware.
BERND KING/IMAGO/ICON SMI (CHENEY)
TONY QUINN/ICON SMI (SHEA)
JOHN TODD/ISIPHOTOS.COM (AGUDELO)