In a Blood Test, U.S. Ties N. Korea in Opener
Wednesday, September 12, 2007
CHENGDU, China, Sept. 11 -- With 28 minutes remaining in the U.S. national soccer team's opening match of the Women's World Cup on Tuesday night, the star striker was in the locker room getting her bloody scalp stitched, the goalkeeper was trying to keep her composure after conceding a comical goal and the three defenders were wondering if the wave of North Korean forays was ever going to subside.
And then there was this sobering detail: For the first time in almost a year, the Americans were losing.
"We knew we had time and we knew we just had to play," team captain Kristine Lilly said. "That is what is so great about this group, because we haven't been in this situation and we did come out with a point."
Heather O'Reilly's 69th-minute strike salvaged a 2-2 tie for the Americans, who did not perform anything like a team that has not lost in regulation time in 48 games and is favored to win this 16-team tournament. The North Koreans were faster, dominated the midfield and, to the delight of most of the 35,100 at rainy Chengdu Sports Center Stadium, seized the lead with two goals while the U.S. team played shorthanded during a chaotic stretch of the second half.
The result, combined with Sweden's 1-1 tie against Nigeria, left Group B in a four-way deadlock (each team has one standings point) heading into Friday's doubleheader in the Sichuan capital. The Americans remain in good standing but will need a better performance against the Swedes, runners-up in 2003, to validate their championship aspirations. Group play will conclude next Tuesday with the top two finishers advancing to the quarterfinals.
"We knew what a difficult group this would be," Coach Greg Ryan said.
North Korea, which has never reached the elimination round, nimbly negotiated the slippery field and combined a long-passing game with its usual short combinations to generate several quality scoring chances during a scoreless first half.
The Americans did end the half on a strong note, with Abby Wambach's header hitting the underside of the crossbar, and then took the lead five minutes after intermission on Wambach's 14-yard strike that Lilly had made possible with a clever touch into the penalty area.
But things began to unravel for the two-time champion U.S. team a few minutes later. Wambach, the physical forward who creates so many opportunities, slammed heads with a North Korean player in front of the U.S. goal and began bleeding profusely. She had to leave the game, but would it be temporarily or for good? In a tight match, Ryan figured he could not afford to lose his most dangerous player. So instead of using a substitute, he decided to wait for her to return.
"It was a very tough call," Ryan said. "The doctors said they could get her back in just a few minutes. Abby is such an important player to this team, I thought we could withstand playing 11 against 10."
They couldn't, although in reality, both North Korean goals could have been prevented. As Wambach was walking behind the U.S. bench toward the locker room, goalkeeper Hope Solo allowed Kil Son Hui's 22-yard shot to slip between her hands and tie the match.
"The conditions were very slick, very wet, those balls spin like crazy, but no excuse, it happens," Solo said.