After a grueling match Sunday, players on the U.S. women's soccer team wanted to rest their weary legs and aching backs. They wanted to forget about competing for a day, beginning on-field preparations for Saturday's Women's World Cup final at the Rose Bowl Tuesday.
Instead, the Americans found themselves bluntly reminded of the significant work ahead as they read accounts and saw video of China's dominant 5-0 victory over Norway in Sunday's late semifinal, which concluded after the Americans' 2-0 win over Brazil at Stanford Stadium. After the game, Norway Coach Per-Mathias Hogmo flatly stated he thought China was superior to the U.S. team.
"I don't think we're scared, but certainly there are a lot of concerns," U.S. Coach Tony DiCicco said today before his team boarded a flight to Los Angeles. "Any time a team beats Norway 5-0, you've got to raise your eyebrows at that."
The Chinese have given the U.S. team major difficulties in recent years. China is the only nation to defeat the Americans this year -- and it has done so twice. There is also a revenge factor for the Chinese, who lost to the Americans in the 1996 Olympic gold medal game in Athens, Ga., after having managed a 0-0 tie earlier in the Olympic tournament.
Given the magnitude of Saturday's challenge, it was understandably hard for the U.S. team to rest fully. The starters had the day off from training, so at least their muscles had a chance of recovery.
For their minds, however, it was a different story.
"Every single game we have played has been physically taxing and also emotionally taxing," U.S. defender Carla Overbeck said after Sunday's game. "We're playing in front of the best fans in the world, and we're also playing the best teams in the world. We feel a sense of accomplishment and relief when we've finally won."
The plucky U.S. team survived two draining elimination-round matches to get to the final in Pasadena, Calif., which will feature a sellout crowd of approximately 85,000. The Chinese, meanwhile, looked frighteningly fresh and energetic in their overwhelming victory over the defending champion Norwegians.
"They're playing the best soccer in their history," DiCicco said. "They are technical, athletic, they have no weaknesses. Every player is a contributor."
The Americans and Chinese have played three times this year. On March 20, China defeated the U.S. team, 2-1, in Portugal. The United States won the next meeting April 22 in Hershey, Pa., by a 2-1 margin, then lost to China by the same score three days later in East Rutherford, N.J. Star U.S. forward Mia Hamm was held scoreless in those matches. China's top striker, Sun Wen, has scored seven goals in this tournament and is considered one of the best players in the world.
"Sun Wen has a lot of touches on the ball, but it always seems she has the right touch," Hamm said. "You don't see her for a while, and then all of a sudden, a cross is made, and she scores."
The Chinese, which today made their fourth coast-to-coast trip during the tournament, have complained vociferously about the schedule. The Americans have made just one coast-to-coast journey -- their flight from Washington to San Francisco on Thursday. Women's World Cup Chief Executive Officer and President Marla Messing said tournament organizers plotted the U.S. team's course through the tournament to ensure the Americans -- certain to be the biggest draw -- would play at nearly every venue. The rest of the draw, Messing said, was completely random.
"The reality of hosting a World Cup in the United States is that travel is going to be worse than hosting it in a place like Sweden," which played host to the 1995 Women's World Cup, Messing said. "There are always going to be some inequities. You can't create a perfect schedule."
DiCicco scoffs at suggestions the United States had a red-carpet path. He says the U.S. team's first-round group, which included Denmark, Nigeria and Germany, was the tournament's toughest. The U.S. team played in Foxboro, Mass., eight days ago, in Washington Thursday night and in Palo Alto on Sunday.
"We played three games in eight days on both coasts and two games against Germany and Brazil -- either team could have been in the final themselves," DiCicco said. "We're a bit weary."
The U.S. players were uplifted by their loyal fans this morning. As they marched through the San Francisco airport concourse today in their red U.S. Soccer Federation shirts, they received impromptu applause and shouts of U-S-A! When they arrived in Los Angeles, they were greeted by a small band and waves of autograph seekers.
"We're proud to be here in the final," DiCicco said. "We've had some pretty nerve-racking games to get to this point. . . . Now, that we're here, I do feel a sense of relief, but there's also a feeling that we haven't accomplished what we really want to accomplish yet. Nothing less than a World Cup victory and a gold medal will be satisfactory."
CAPTION: To the delight of awaiting fans, members of U.S. women's team, including Tiffany Milbrett, second from left, Mia Hamm, arrive in Los Anglees after 2-0 victory over Brazil in semifinals.
CAPTION: Brazil's Juliana, left, challenges Cindy Parlow of the United States, which has a 1-2 record this year against China, its opponent in World Cup final.
CAPTION: After goal, Michelle Akers shakes hands with U.S. Coach Tony DiCicco, who says of World Cup final opponent China: "They have no weaknesses."