New Role For U.S. In Final

Angela Hucles (16), a key part of the revamped U.S. team, celebrates with teammates after scoring in Monday's semifinal victory over Japan.
Angela Hucles (16), a key part of the revamped U.S. team, celebrates with teammates after scoring in Monday's semifinal victory over Japan. (By Michael Sohn -- Associated Press)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 21, 2008

BEIJING, Aug. 20 -- The inevitability in women's soccer once was that the American team would not only play for, but win, whatever championship was at stake, or come back with a vengeance on the occasions in which it fell. Olympic titles in 1996 and 2004 and Women's World Cup championships in 1991 and 1999 set that standard.

On Thursday, though, comes a new role for a new group of American women. That the Mia Hamms and Julie Foudys and Kristine Lillys of the world are gone from the national team is old news. What's new?

"I think we've been considered somewhat of the underdog in some respects," said Angela Hucles, a converted midfielder who is playing striker in this tournament.

The words, as Hucles said them this week, were almost hard to form. But consider how the United States heads into the gold medal match Thursday night against Brazil. Four years ago, the two teams met for gold in the last match together for the women who forged the American reputation internationally, Hamm and Foudy and Lilly among them. Brazil played better, but the United States won.

Last year, in the World Cup, held in China, the U.S. team was beaten, and badly. The 4-0 loss to Brazil was exactly the kind of embarrassment the Americans routinely delivered and almost never absorbed. It was, of course, punctuated by the comments of goalie Hope Solo, who insisted that had she played, she would have made each of the saves Brianna Scurry could not.

The message now: We're different. The coach from that team, Greg Ryan, was fired and replaced by Sweden's Pia Sundhage, a fiery former elite player. The club went from a very direct attacking style to a possession game, which the players say has put an emphasis on their ball skills. Abby Wambach, one of the best offensive players in the world, broke a leg just before the Olympics, leaving precious little time for one last overhaul.

The result has been a team that somehow has found its footing in China. Hucles, a University of Virginia product, replaced Wambach up top and leads the team with four goals. Solo has moved back into net and played every minute, the unquestioned starter over the veteran Scurry. And the scoring has been spread out. Though the United States is tied with Brazil for most goals in the tournament with 11 in its five matches, the 11 goals are from 11 scorers.

"We're a completely different team," said midfielder Shannon Boxx, a veteran of the 2004 gold medalists who drew two yellow cards in last year's World Cup semifinal match against Brazil, leaving her team a player down. "We've had to learn how to change."

There are, though, some constants. When the Americans lost their first match of these Games, a 2-0 decision to Norway, Kate Markgraf, a 31-year-old veteran of three Olympics, unveiled some advice that only a member of the old guard could. In the 2000 Olympic tournament, the United States beat Norway in the opening match. Norway went on to win the gold.

"That was stated," Hucles said, "and it was a good reminder."

There will be plenty of reminders of last year's loss Thursday at Beijing Workers' Stadium. The highest-scoring player in the tournament is Brazil's Cristiane, who has five goals. Perhaps the most creative is Marta, who has scored three times in the Olympics and victimized the Americans for the final, humiliating goal in the World Cup.

Neither Marta nor Cristiane played in recent run-up matches against the United States prior to the Olympics. "We've seen those players in the past," Boxx said. "We're definitely prepared for that."

What they might not be prepared for is the unfamiliarity of being the team that is expected to lose. They will not concentrate on last year's loss, they said. If they are to be believed, it won't even be mentioned.

"I think what's great with this team is that nothing really needs to be said," said defender Lori Chalupny, who scored the Americans' best goal of the tournament, weaving through three Japanese defenders in the 4-2 semifinal victory. "We know where we're headed. We know what we want. You can tell just looking in each other's eyes."

It was a look that was once familiar. Thursday night, they will try to show that an overhauled group playing a different style can make it golden again.

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