U.S. Team Is Ready for the World
Monday, September 10, 2007
CHENGDU, China, Sept. 9 -- The U.S. women's national soccer team has been in China for almost two weeks adjusting to the time difference and climate. The players have practiced without distraction and studied film. They've explored Shanghai, visited a panda reserve here in Sichuan province -- "they were cute," team captain Kristine Lilly confirmed -- and seen a towering statue of Mao Zedong presiding over Tianfu Square in the heart of this southern city.
So now what?
"We just want to play," striker Abby Wambach said Sunday following an hour-long training session at Chengdu Sports Center Stadium. "We're so ready. We've been ready for a long time."
For Wambach and the Americans, the wait will finally end Tuesday (5 a.m. Eastern) when they open their Women's World Cup schedule against North Korea, the first of three potentially troublesome Group B matches.
The U.S. team is ranked No. 1 by FIFA, soccer's international governing body, and has not lost a game in regulation time in almost three years, but with a new generation of players in place, the Americans will have to prove that they can win a major tournament without the likes of Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy and Brandi Chastain.
"Two years is a long time to prepare, so they are happy it is finally here," said Coach Greg Ryan, who was an assistant on the 2004 squad that won Olympic gold in Greece. "I think we have enough veterans that know how to play in these games and will be able to help the young kids with, 'Okay, now we're ready to go, let's keep our focus.' It's a great balance."
Lilly, playing in her record-setting fifth World Cup, joins veterans Christie Rampone, Abby Wambach and Kate Markgraf in providing balance to a starting lineup that will also include the University of Portland's Stephanie Lopez, 21, at left back, possibly three other players ages 23 or younger, and a goalkeeper, Hope Solo, who did not win the No. 1 job until last year.
"They are excited," said Rampone, 32, who is at her third World Cup. "We don't have to say anything. You can see it in their body language, you can see it in their eyes. The way they've matured, they are ready for it."
While Lilly, 36, and Wambach, 27, will provide experience on the front line -- Wambach has recovered from a toe injury suffered in the final tune-up two weeks ago -- Lindsay Tarpley, 23, Heather O'Reilly, 22, and Lori Chalupny, 23, might end up joining 2003 veteran Shannon Boxx in the midfield. Ryan has utilized a three-midfielder, three-forward formation much of his tenure, with either O'Reilly or Tarpley joining Lilly and Wambach up front, but he experimented with four midfielders during periods of some recent friendlies and could go in that direction Tuesday.
"They haven't been to a World Cup," Markgraf said of the young players, "but they've been put in every situation to replicate what the World Cup is going to feel like and now is their chance to shine."
The U.S. team's path to a third title is fraught with danger. Drawn into the most difficult first-round group with emerging North Korea, 2003 runner-up Sweden and African champion Nigeria, the Americans are aware that a loss might result in a quarterfinal matchup with defending champion and Group A favorite Germany in the quarterfinals.
The first game could reveal a lot about the Americans. They soundly beat North Korea by 3-0 scores in each of the previous World Cups, but most observers of the women's game expect this encounter to be much more competitive.
The North Koreans are fast, utilize a short passing game, try to overwhelm opponents in midfield and, according to Solo, "are probably the best team we've seen on the ball. I have never seen stuff like that."
As far as Ryan is concerned, the U.S. team has taken every step to ensure a successful start to what he hopes will be another three weeks in China, culminating with the Sept. 30 final in Shanghai.
"We know this group is going to be difficult," he said, "but our team has great confidence because of the preparation we've done."