With all of the attention the U.S. women's national soccer team has been receiving lately, it may be difficult to remember that the defending Women's World Cup champion is Norway.

In fact, because China has defeated the United States twice this year, the Norwegians come to Jack Kent Cooke Stadium for a first-round game tonight against Canada in a peculiar darkhorse position. It doesn't seem to matter that Norway is the only team in the 16-team tournament with a winning all-time record against the Americans (11-10-1) or that it finished second in the 1991 Women's World Cup. It also doesn't seem to matter that it thoroughly dominated Russia in their opening first-round game Sunday -- a 2-1 victory in which the Norwegians had a 28-6 advantage in shots and a 12-1 edge in corner kicks.

Many observers believe Norway will advance to the semifinals and lose to China without getting a chance to renew its rivalry with the United States.

The Norwegians have no problem with that line of thought. It's just that they have other ideas.

"It is all right with us if people look at the United States and China as the favorites," assistant coach Jarl Torske said before a light training session Monday at George Mason University. "We are a much younger team [than in 1995] but the core is made of experienced, world-class players."

Canadian midfielder Amy Walsh said: "I think they've been overlooked a tad, but you can't overlook Norway. They're such a strong squad."

Four of the Norwegian players who started against Russia had made more than 60 international appearances, led by defender Linda Medalen and midfielder Hege Riise, two of the world's best players, both of whom are playing in their third Women's World Cup.

Medalen, who turned 34 six days ago, is a veteran of 146 international matches, but is starting at a new position for the national team. Originally a striker, she has scored a Norwegian-record 63 goals, including eight in Women's World Cup play. Now she anchors the defense while the scoring burden largely has been passed on to 24-year-old Marianne Pettersen, who had a goal and an assist on 11 shots against Russia, and 22-year-old Ragnhild Guldbrandsen.

Overseeing this transition has been Coach Per-Mathias Hogmo, who took over the program in 1997.

Hogmo played briefly with the men's national squad and had coached several men's youth national teams. But he never had coached a women's team before, and thus had few ties to the women's team's past, which included a bit of slippage after the 1995 Women's World Cup title -- a bronze medal at the 1996 Summer Olympics. Only seven of the 21 members chosen by Hogmo have any World Cup experience.

However, it's not as if this group is untested. Unlike the men's World Cup champion, which automatically receives a place in the next tournament, the women's champion receives no such free pass. Thus, the Norwegians were forced to earn their way into the field of 16 the same way everybody except the host team did -- through a qualifying tournament.

"We should be directly qualified like the men," Medalen said earlier this month while the team finished its preparations at a training camp in Hyannis, Mass. "But you have to play the games, and we love to play them."

That's a good thing because Norway's European qualifying group included possibly the continent's second-best team -- Germany. The Norwegians wound up winning their group with a 4-1-1 record, but not before consecutive games in which they lost to Germany, 1-0, and played a scoreless tie with the Netherlands -- a team they had earlier clobbered, 6-1. Although the Norwegians defeated Germany, 3-2, in a rematch, they still needed to defeat England in their final qualifying match to secure first place in the group by one point over the Germans, who later joined them in the Women's World Cup field by routing Ukraine in a two-game playoff.

Coming back to finish first in the group "really helped us build confidence," said Riise, who is fourth on Norway's all-time goal list with 43. "We always felt like we could win the group."

Still, there is no swagger to these players -- no sense that they are the world champions until someone takes the title from them. Their view is that everybody, themselves included, starts from scratch.

"We were the champions in '95," Medalen said, "but that doesn't matter now."

They also say that their rivalry with the United States does not matter -- at least not for now.

"We're not even thinking about" the Americans, Medalen said. "And if we do face them, we will prepare for them as though it were just another game."

Meanwhile, Torske, the assistant coach, is helping prepare only for Canada, an opponent he says is quite unlike Russia.

"We knew teams have difficulty scoring against Russia," Torske said. "Canada scores a lot of goals, but they also concede goals. They had some quite close games with the United States, they defeated Australia -- we are not going to underestimate them. Not at all."

Notes: Silvana Burtini, who scored Canada's only goal against Japan Saturday, is questionable for tonight's game because of a strained left hamstring. Coach Neil Turnbull suggested that Isabelle Harvey would start in Burtini's place if she is unable to play.

Hickling reported from Hyannis, Mass., Kuhns and Kathy Orton from Washington.