Key Points:

When the doom and gloom brigade were questioning whether the Football Ferns deserved their Olympic place, it didn't matter a hoot to Rebecca Smith.

Born and bred in California, Smith was far removed from the kerfuffle surrounding the women's soccer squad's approval for the Games competition.

That probably helped. The fact that she was shortlisted for the world women's player of the year last year also may have assisted her in taking a view that it was a nonsense and sold New Zealand's chances well short.

Since getting the nod for Beijing, the Ferns have made steady improvement, culminating in a 1-1 draw with world No 9 Canada last week. Considering New Zealand are ranked No 24, it hints that they might raise a few eyebrows when they kick off their campaign against world No 10 Japan in Qinhuangdao tomorrow night.

Smith took no notice of those arguing that the New Zealand Olympic Committee had gone against their stated position of what was expected of teams in Beijing, that of having the capability to make the second round.

"I guess the team can take that [criticism] and use it but I don't think there's any doubt in the players' minds that we deserved this," Smith said.

Smith has New Zealand-born parents. She was educated at Chadwick High School in Palo Verdes, a suburb just south of Los Angeles, has an Economics and Spanish double degree from Duke University and is eyeing a career in international business.

Despite the Californian accent, Smith returns to New Zealand every year and feels a strong connection.

She spent time with FC Frankfurt, when the squad included about two-thirds of the German national team, before being picked up by Sunanna SK in the strong Swedish league where her game further blossomed.

A central defender, Smith captained New Zealand at last year's World Cup when she was carrying a knee cartilage injury. That took her out for nine months but she returned in time for the Peace Queen Cup earlier this year in Korea. The break gave her the opportunity to assess the state of the Ferns squad. What she saw before and after her layoff bear no relation to each other, she believes.

"The improvements have been tremendous. We'd always had defensive shape but now, on the ball, it's like a whole new team."

Smith suspects the other nations have cottoned on to New Zealand's progress. Their chances of catching Japan, Norway, or the defending champions the United States, off guard in the next week are receding.

"I think our reputation is getting round that we're not a team to be underestimated. We are becoming a team that's legitimate," she added.