-- The sun poured down on the isle of Crete on Tuesday, casting distant, mountainous islands in a soft haze, the Mediterranean Sea perhaps four shades darker than the azure sky. Such an ideal setting could lead -- and, indeed, has led, in the case of the U.S. women's soccer team -- to time spent on the beach, even floating on a raft, pursuing golden tans before golden medals. What a fond, friendly environment.
Wednesday, it will turn. The U.S. women open the Athens Games not in Athens, but here, in Crete's largest city, some 200 miles to the south. And when they walk through the gates of Pankritio Stadium, they will almost certainly be greeted by thousands of flag-waving, blue-and-white clad fans of the host country, for their first opponent is Greece.
"We know what to expect," veteran Julie Foudy said. "The crowd isn't exactly going to be very friendly."
So begins the Americans' Olympic venture. They left Athens for Crete last Thursday, not to return to Greece's capital city unless they advance to the gold medal match, to be contested Aug. 26.
The road to the final, though, will be quite different than it was in 2000, at the Sydney Games, where the U.S. team played a dramatic, inspired match, only to lose the gold medal to Norway in overtime. Four years ago, the Americans were in what was by far the most difficult first-round group, and had to survive matches with Norway and China -- their chief competition for gold -- merely to advance to the quarterfinals.
In these Games, Greece, Brazil and Australia join the Americans in Group G. None should be in the same class as the United States, though the team's coach, April Heinrichs, argues the path will be nearly as tough as it was four years ago. The 10-team tournament is broken into three groups. Groups E and F have three teams apiece; Group G has four. Given the round robin format -- in which every team plays everyone in its group once -- the United States will have to play three matches, rather than two, before advancing. Only two teams will be eliminated before the quarterfinals, and one will come from the Americans' group.
"We've actually found a lot of parallels between this tournament and 2000," Heinrichs said. "Then, we were in the so-called 'Group of Death,' and our path was the most difficult. This time, we play the host country. Being in a group of four, we'll play one more game. That affects fatigue. It affects yellow-card accumulation. It has an impact on injuries.
"All that will make our path the most difficult. But the way our players look at it is, 'This is our path. Let's go.' "
The path will turn to Thessaloniki, the nation's second-largest city, on Saturday, when the Americans will face Brazil. They will remain there for their third and final group-play match, Aug. 17 against Australia. Should they have the best record among the four teams in the group, they will play their quarterfinal in Thessaloniki as well.
Yet this team, even as it enjoys the occasional dip in the sea or afternoon on the beach, is resolute on concentrating on the Greeks, then the Brazilians, then the Australians, in that order. The veteran players, those whose words carry weight, have made it clear what's expected. As forward Mia Hamm said: "This team sets very high standards for itself. We need to remember that we set those standards, and we're the ones that have to live up to them."
"I'm listening," said forward Heather O'Reilly, just 19 and playing in her first Olympics. "I can learn. They're not letting other opponents come into view. We've talked a lot about Greece for the last few weeks, actually, and that's all we'll talk about."
Because this journey has been widely touted as the end of an era in American soccer -- given the retirement of marquee veterans Hamm, Foudy and Joy Fawcett from international competition following the Olympics -- much of the talk has been about how those players might enjoy this ride, their last together. Now, though, their role is much more to counsel than it is to reflect. Thus, in between daily training sessions -- the team has worked out every day but Sunday -- the players have allowed themselves no more than an hour in the sun, and are generally staying off their feet.
"This team's not really into having a lot of rules," Foudy said. "We're just being smart. We know what we're here for."
Which is to face the Greeks. Heinrichs said Greece plays "kind of an oxymoron" of a style, one she called "indirect counterattacking." They are different from a traditional ball-control team -- such as the Chinese or Brazilians -- in that they don't take 20 or 30 touches to advance the ball from penalty area to penalty area. Yet they're not a direct, attacking team such as Norway, using two or three booming passes up the field. Rather, the Greeks counterattack by playing the ball forward, not left to right, advancing their attack with five to seven crisply played passes.
"They should be very pleased with how they play," Heinrichs said. "It's very attractive, very connected."
Heinrichs said she has spoken to her team about the atmosphere, about what they will face off the field as well as on it. There will be a hostile crowd, she said, and the Americans must remain focused should a referee's call go against them, as is sure to happen. "That's just part of soccer culture," Heinrichs said.
Now, too, might be the height of soccer in Greece, given the outrageous upset the Greek men's national team pulled in winning the European championship -- think U.S. hockey in 1980 -- this summer. The Greeks have also anticipated the return of the Olympics to their homeland almost since they left, back in 1896. So the Greek fans will hoot, howl and everything in between. They will wrap their home team in an embrace as warm as the breeze here. And the Americans will be ready to handle it.
"We don't want any distractions," O'Reilly said, "to overtake the goal that we have -- and that's winning the whole thing."