Friday, September 21, 2007
TIANJIN, China, Sept. 20 -- The fact that the United States has advanced to the Women's World Cup quarterfinals comes as no surprise, for the Americans have won the championship twice, are top-ranked in the sport and have not lost a game in almost three years.
However, the difficulty they had getting there illustrates the narrowing of a once vast gulf between traditional powers in women's soccer and emerging programs, and has left the pioneering U.S. team, as well as defending champion Germany, vulnerable to an upset this weekend.
"The top teams are no longer the top teams by miles," said U.S. Coach Greg Ryan, whose squad is preparing to face upstart England on Saturday night at Tianjin Olympic Center Stadium. "We see all the women's teams in the world growing, becoming stronger."
If the world is catching up to the U.S. team, there are indications the Americans have taken a step back -- perhaps a small one -- as well. Although they remained unbeaten in first-round play since the tournament began in 1991 (13-0-2), the scores in the 2007 group stage were closer than ever and, for the first time, the United States had to closely monitor the progress of the group's other game on the final day of play to learn where it would finish.
The Americans faced the same three teams in group play this year as they did in 2003 and, although they defeated Sweden by two goals again, they had to come from behind to tie the North Koreans, 2-2, after beating them by 3-0 scores four years ago and in 1999. They also had to hold off Nigeria in the second half for a 1-0 victory following a 5-0 rout in '03 and a 7-1 decision in '99.
"The U.S. feels they were going to beat us by maybe 5-0," Nigeria forward Perpetua Nkwocha said, "but they were surprised."
The Americans scored only five goals in the group stage, four fewer than their previous first-round low in 1995, and did not have more than two in a game. Before this year, they had failed just once to score at least three times in a group match, in a 2-0 win over Denmark 12 years ago.
Ryan and the players attribute their rough passage to a disproportionately difficult group, which included three of the top five teams in the FIFA world rankings as well as African champion Nigeria. While Germany and England, the quarterfinalists from Group A, beat up on Argentina by a combined score of 17-1 and New Zealand and Ghana offered mild resistance against the other group favorites, the Americans contend they had no pushovers.
"We knew from the beginning it was not going to be easy," team captain Kristine Lilly said, "and that's exactly what happened. Winning this group was a big accomplishment."
The Americans confronted a North Korean team that appears on the brink of becoming the class of Asian women's soccer -- especially if it upsets Germany on Saturday in Wuhan -- and a Nigerian squad that finally has organization and discipline to match its raw skills.
But there has also been a noticeable change in the U.S. team's style of play. The Americans have lacked a dynamic attacking element, a player to improvise in the open field and take on defenders like superstar Mia Hamm once did. They have also had trouble linking together quick, one-touch passes, a trademark of past U.S. teams, to unlock opposing defenses. Other than Lori Chalupny's two-way play, the U.S. midfield has lacked production and ingenuity.
"I've definitely seen them play better," Sweden team captain Victoria Svensson said. "Six or seven years ago, they would try to play the ball on the ground a lot more and pull teams apart that way. Now they just try to bang it up" to striker Abby Wambach, who has scored three goals and provided a bruising physical presence at the point of the attack.
Ryan recognizes his team's midfield shortcomings, saying, "We can keep the ball a lot better than we've done, we can possess the ball better, and I feel like we are maybe a bit rushed and not holding the ball well enough, and not being accurate enough with our passing."
Added goalkeeper Hope Solo, "Right now we're not making the best decisions."
Another concern is the finishing. Unable to close out the Nigeria match with a second goal when the chance arose just before halftime, the U.S. team had to sweat out a stressful final 15 minutes.
A repeat performance against England could very well spell an early exit for the Americans and, as a result, signal another shift in the women's soccer landscape.
"Some very good teams are going home," Ryan said. "It's just a very, very strong field."