Olympic soccer is a big deal in the women’s game, ranking second in prestige and importance to the World Cup. In men’s circles, not so much. It’s an age-restrictive tournament that FIFA, the sport’s international governing body, does not take seriously and doesn’t want to grow. (More on that later.)

For those reasons, under any circumstances, U.S. sports fans would be better off paying greater attention to the 12-nation women’s competition than the 16-team men’s. There’s no choice this summer — or four of the past five Olympic summers — because the U.S. men failed to qualify again. Hence, all of U.S. soccer’s attention will turn to the world champion women’s team, which is seeking a fifth gold medal since the introduction of women’s soccer at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

Here’s what to know about soccer at the Tokyo Olympics.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • When are the men’s and women’s Olympic soccer tournaments?
  • What is the Olympic soccer format?
  • Is VAR used in the Olympics?
  • Who is on the U.S. women’s soccer team?
  • Can anyone beat the U.S. women?
  • Why is there an age limit for male players at the Olympics?

When are the men’s and women’s Olympic soccer tournaments?

The women’s group stage runs July 21-27. The quarterfinals take place July 30, followed by the semifinals on Aug. 2, the bronze-medal match in Kashima on Aug. 5 and the gold-medal match in Tokyo on August 6.

The men’s tournament began July 22. The group stage runs to July 28, followed by the quarterfinals on July 31 and semifinals on Aug. 3. The bronze-medal match will take place in Saitama on Aug. 6, with the gold-medal match the following day in Yokohama.

What is the Olympic soccer format?

There are four groups in the men’s competition and three in the women that play a round-robin group stage (three games each). Eight teams advance to the quarterfinals in each tournament.

In the men’s competition, the teams ranked first and second in their group advance. In the women’s tournament, the top two teams in each group plus the next two best teams across all groups advance to the quarterfinals.

If two or more teams are tied based on points, the following tiebreakers are used, per the rules:

  1. Goal difference.
  2. Number of goals scored.
  3. Number of points scored between the teams tied.
  4. Goal difference resulting from the matches between the teams tied.
  5. Number of goals scored in all group matches between the teams tied.
  6. Highest team conduct score relating to the number of yellow and red cards obtained in all group matches.
  7. Drawing of lots by FIFA.

The quarterfinals are single elimination, and the winners advance to the semifinals. The winners of the semifinal matches will play in the gold medal game. The losers will play for bronze.

Is VAR used in the Olympics?

Yes; VAR, or video assistant referee, will be used in an Olympic Games for the first time. VAR made its international soccer debut at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, and it also was used during the 2019 Women’s World Cup.

Here’s how it works:

  • The on-field referee now has help from the VAR team, consisting of the video assistant referee and two assistants. The VAR team comprises FIFA-designated match officials who also may work as on-field referees. They have all available camera angles at their disposal and are connected to the on-field referee via a radio communication system.
  • If the VAR team notices a play that is worth a review, it communicates that fact to the on-field official, who stops play and heads to a replay monitor located near the field.
  • Only four areas are covered by VAR: goals, and the incidents leading up to goals (offsides, ball out of play); penalties (whether they took place inside the penalty area, and whether the on-field referee erred in awarding a penalty); incidents leading to a direct red card; and cases of mistaken identity.
  • The final decision on any play involving VAR is made by the on-field official. The VAR team can only assist the on-field official in making his or her final decision.

Who is on the U.S. women’s soccer team?

Of the 18 players initially named to the roster, 17 were part of the 2019 World Cup championship squad. The newcomer is midfielder Kristie Mewis. Subsequently, because of pandemic concerns, the IOC expanded rosters to 22 by allowing men’s and women’s teams to activate their four alternates. (Coaches still can have only 18 in uniform per game.) The roster expansion opened the door to U.S. players who have never appeared in the World Cup or Olympics, including Brazilian-born attacker Catarina Macario, 21.

Familiar names highlight the roster: Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan, Carli Lloyd, Becky Sauerbrunn, Samantha Mewis, Crystal Dunn, Lindsey Horan, Rose Lavelle, Alyssa Naeher, Abby Dahlkemper, Christen Press, Tobin Heath and Kelley O’Hara.

Julie Ertz, a midfield stalwart, was named to the roster, despite being sidelined since May with a sprained knee. Her minutes are expected to increase as the tournament transpires.

Because of the compact schedule — up to six matches in 17 days — Andonovski will utilize the deepest roster in the tournament and adjust the starting lineup without missing a beat.

Can anyone beat the U.S. women?

Yes. Although they have not lost in 2½ years and are heavy favorites, the Americans face two tough tests in the group stage (Sweden and Australia) and potential showdowns in the knockout rounds against formidable foes such as Great Britain, Japan and the Netherlands, the 2019 World Cup runner-up.

At the 2016 Olympics, the U.S. team lost to Sweden in the quarterfinals in a penalty-kick tiebreaker, its earliest elimination from a major tournament. Although no reigning women’s World Cup champion has won Olympic gold, the one-year postponement allowed the U.S. team to further grow into new coach Vlatko Andonovski’s system. An aging core, however, is one year older.

Why is there an age limit for male players at the Olympics?

FIFA doesn’t want global competition to its crown jewel, the men’s World Cup. So starting in 1992, it turned the Olympics into an under-23 tournament, the next step in age-specific events following the U-17 and U-20 World Cups. (Because the Tokyo Games were delayed, 24-year-olds are eligible this year.)

Furthermore, unlike the World Cup, FIFA does not require clubs to release players. Hence, there was no way Paris Saint-Germain was going to let French superstar Kylian Mbappe, 22, skip preseason for the Olympics. With World Cup qualifiers resuming in September, senior national team coaches are also apprehensive about their players going to the Summer Games.

FIFA did try to appease the International Olympic Committee by making a concession in the men’s game: Each team that qualifies is allowed up to three overage players. They, too, however, are subject to clubs declining their call-ups.

The women’s tournament does not have age limits because FIFA doesn’t see it as a threat to the women’s World Cup. Also, because the women’s game is still evolving, many countries would struggle to compete with smaller player pools.

Who are the men’s medal contenders?

Despite the presence of soccer high society — France, Spain, Germany, Argentina and 2016 winner Brazil — the Olympics are less predictable than the World Cup because of the age limit. In 2012, Mexico won the gold medal and, four years later, Honduras made the semifinals.

Spain is probably the favorite because, in contrast to FIFA’s directives, Spanish law requires domestic clubs to release players for the Olympics. So five age-eligible members of the senior national team that advanced to the semifinals of the UEFA European Championship are on the roster, including goalkeeper Unai Simon (Athletic Bilbao) and midfielder Pedri González (FC Barcelona).

The tournament will also feature Brazil’s Gabriel Martinelli (Arsenal) and Dani Alves (Sao Paulo); Japan’s Takefusa Kubo (Real Madrid); France’s Thorian Flauvin (Tigres UANL); and Mexico’s Diego Lainez (Real Betis). MLS is represented by Argentina’s Claudio Bravo (Portland Timbers) and Ezequiel Barco (Atlanta United), and Honduras’s Douglas Martinez (Real Salt Lake).

Are all the men’s and women’s matches in Tokyo?

No. Olympic tradition calls for spreading soccer throughout the host country. Yokohama, Kashima, Saitama, Sapporo and Rifu will join two venues in Tokyo. The women’s gold-medal match will be held at the National Stadium in Tokyo and the men’s final will take place in Yokohama, site of the 2002 World Cup final.

What is the schedule for soccer at the Olympics?

All times Eastern.

July 21: Women’s group stage

Great Britain vs. Chile, 3:30 a.m.

China vs. Brazil, 4 a.m.

Sweden vs. United States, 4:30 a.m.

Japan vs. Canada, 6:30 a.m.

Zambia vs. Netherlands, 7 a.m.

Australia vs. New Zealand, 7:30 a.m.

July 22: Men’s group stage

Egypt vs. Spain, 3:30 a.m.

Mexico vs. France, 4 a.m.

New Zealand vs. South Korea, 4 a.m.

Ivory Coast vs. Saudi Arabia 4:30 a.m.

Argentina vs. Australia, 6:30 a.m.

Japan vs. South Africa, 7 a.m.

Honduras vs. Romania, 7 a.m.

Brazil vs. German, 7:30 a.m.

July 24: Women’s group stage

Chile vs. Canada, 3:30 a.m.

China vs. Zambia, 4 a.m.

Sweden vs. Australia, 4:30 a.m.

Japan vs. Great Britain, 6:30 a.m.

Netherlands vs. Brazil, 7 a.m.

New Zealand vs. United States, 7:30 a.m.

July 25: Men’s group stage

Egypt vs. Argentina, 3:30 a.m.

France vs. South Africa, 4 a.m.

New Zealand vs. Honduras, 4 a.m.

Brazil vs. Ivory Coast, 4:30 a.m.

Australia vs. Spain, 6:30 a.m.

Japan vs. Mexico, 7 a.m.

Romania vs. South Korea, 7 a.m.

Saudia Arabia vs. Germany, 7:30 a.m.

July 27: Women’s group stage

New Zealand vs. Sweden, 4 a.m.

United States vs. Australia, 4 a.m.

Chile vs. Japan, 7 a.m.

Canada vs. Great Britain, 7 a.m.

Netherlands vs. China, 7:30 a.m.

Brazil vs. Zambia, 7:30 a.m.

July 28: Men’s group stage

Saudia Arabia vs. Brazil, 4 a.m.

Germany vs. Ivory Coast, 4 a.m.

Romania vs. New Zealand, 4:30 a.m.

South Korea vs. Honduras, 4:30 a.m.

Australia vs. Egypt, 7 a.m.

Spain vs. Argentina, 7 a.m.

France vs. Japan, 7:30 a.m.

South Africa vs. Mexicio, 7:30 a.m.

July 30: Women’s quarterfinals

July 31: Men’s quarterfinals

Aug. 2: Women’s semifinals in Kashima and Yokohama

Aug. 3: Men’s semifinals in Kashima and Saitama

Aug. 5: Women’s bronze-medal match in Kashima

Aug. 6: Women’s gold-medal match in Tokyo, men’s bronze-medal match in Saitama

Aug. 7: Men’s gold-medal match in Yokohama