For U.S. Women’s Soccer, the Road to Olympic Gold Goes Through North Korea

The U.S.-North Korea Olympic women's soccer game on July 31 is sure to draw global attention

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USA's midfielder Carli Lloyd (L) and North Korea's midfielder Kim Su Gyong, vie for the ball during the FIFA women's World Cup at Dresden's Gluecksgas stadium in eastern Germany in 2011.

Circle July 31 on your calendars: That’s the day the U.S. is going face-to-face with North Korea.

The two countries aren’t meeting at some diplomatic summit — they are squaring off on the soccer field. The U.S. women’s soccer team will be one of the big stories of the London Olympics. Last summer, Hope Solo and Abby Wambach and the rest of the U.S. players captivated the country with their World Cup run: the team lost a thrilling, but heart-wrenching final to Japan on penalty kicks. At the Olympics, soccer shares the stage with the swimmers, sprinters and athletes in other high-profile sports. But Team USA’s push for soccer gold, to avenge last summer’s World Cup disappointment, will be no less compelling.

At the Olympics, politics and sports often intersect. So the USA-North Korea matchup will attract plenty of attention. For both teams, it is the third, and final, game of pool play: if the U.S. slips up against France or Colombia, it could be a must-win game for Team USA. “Americans that don’t know women’s soccer too well, they might not know that North Korea has a women’s soccer team,” says Heather O’Reilly, a U.S. midfielder who calls the North Koreans “fantastic.”

(MORE: Japan Beats U.S. In Thrilling World Cup Final)

The teams met in last year’s World Cup, and the U.S. won, 2-0. (After the game, North Korea coach Kwang Min Kim said that several of his players had been stuck by lightning while training in North Korea weeks beforehand and were still not at full strength). Like the country, the team is secretive: the U.S. players don’t know a ton about North Korea’s personnel. “You can’t really scout North Korea,” says U.S. striker Alex Morgan, who along with three teammates was meeting with reporters at the Team USA Olympic media summit in Dallas.

Once the Olympics begin, the players anticipate being asked about politics. But they’re not studying U.S.-North Korea relations. “We’re really going in there trying to focus on ourselves,” says Morgan.

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At last year’s World Cup, the two teams actually shared a hotel. “Their meal room was next to our meal room,” O’Reilly says. “There wasn’t much mingling between the teams.” Had she ever talked to a North Korean player? “No,” O’Reilly says. “Just friendly banter in the elevators. Nothing of depth.”

The North Korea game aside, the U.S. is going to be facing plenty of pressure at the Olympics. The U.S. women won soccer gold in both Athens and Beijing, and this group doesn’t want to be known as the ones who both blew the World Cup final — and stopped the Olympic winning streak. “When you see the American flag, I feel like you’re labeled a favorite in anything you do,” says U.S. forward Lauren Cheney. “We do embrace that, and we do want to play in that environment. By no means are we unbeatable… I think [other teams] have caught us in that way. I think we’ll always be a target.”

Especially for North Korea.

MORE: From Pariah to Pinnacle: U.S. Women’s Soccer Goalie Hope Solo