Alexa

American women seek third title in five World Cups with team in transition

American women seek third title in five World Cups with team in transition

Mia Hamm, gone. Julie Foudy, done. Brandi Chastain, retired.
The big stars and leaders of the U.S. women's soccer team _ and of the sport itself _ won't be in uniform when the Americans go for a third World Cup title in China.
With the exception of current captain Kristine Lilly and goalkeeper Briana Scurry, now a backup, the United States has no connections to most of the glory years that included Olympic gold medals in 1996 and 2004, and World Cup crowns in 1991 and, most memorably, 1999.
That hardly means the Americans have no chance in the three-week, 16-team tournament. Indeed, they are ranked No. 1 in the world, have not lost in regulation time under coach Greg Ryan, and have all the elements it takes to win another major championship.
Most notably, a tradition that each of them aspires to continue.
"A great foundation was set," says Lilly, who helped set it nearly two decades ago, "and it led to a history of winning World Cups and gold medals. Obviously, there's something right. Players come in and understand to be here is an honor, that our goal is to be the best. Every day, be the best.
"It's what is in your heart? What can you do to make this team better? And every player who has ever been here understands it."
To say this squad is as talented as the previous champions is unfair. Through the years, the Americans lost the likes of Michelle Akers and April Heinrichs and survived. But never have they been faced with the departures of so many key performers in a short span:
_ Hamm, the greatest scorer in soccer history;
_ Foudy, perhaps the best leader and midfield organizer the women's game has seen;
_ Chastain, a great athlete and clutch performer;
_ Joy Fawcett, a defensive anchor with an impenetrably calm demeanor;
_ Carla Overbeck, whose maturity rubbed off on every teammate and even the coaching staffs.
Still, this team hardly is devoid of world-class talent, from Lilly, now a forward and still a force, to Abby Wambach, perhaps the most dangerous woman striker in the world, to Kate Markgraf, who ably has replaced Fawcett and Overbeck on the back line.
"There's a process to the women's movement in sports and this team has had a lot of expectations on it, then and now, with those retired players and with us now," Wambach says. "My theory on wearing that USA jersey is it equals an opportunity to get to a level that is better than where you start out.
"It's definitely a slippery slope. You're always asking: `Are we doing enough to win, keep winning?' But our philosophy is you never can work hard enough. What is peak performance? Do you ever reach it? We push as hard as we can because if you don't, you don't deserve the success."
What will it take for the United States to succeed in China, where it won the first Women's World Cup in '91? For one, the Americans will need a good start because they are in an extremely difficult group with Sweden, North Korea and Nigeria. The Swedes were Cup runners-up in 2003, and the North Koreans are considered the best team in Asia _ yes, better even than the host Chinese. Nigeria is Africa's top team.
The Americans will play an offensive style built around the penetrating runs and passes of Lilly, Shannon Boxx and Carli Lloyd, and the finishing of Lilly and Wambach. Defensively, their core of Markgraf, Cristie Rampone and Cat Whitehill generally keeps opponents far from the net.
Where Ryan's squad can separate itself is on set plays, particularly on crosses to Wambach and Boxx; on possession; and late in games, where its depth and fitness can be decisive.
"These women just get it," Ryan says. "You don't have to force (the preparation) down their throats. If you say you've got something you want to use against China in a friendly and it's something we'd like to use for North Korea in the World Cup opener, when you say you'll put in those things, they say, `Let's do it.'
"The expectations are that this team should win the World Cup _ both from outside and from inside the team. But the team knows much more than the public knows (about) how hard it will be and how the level of play nowadays is so tough."
That level of play was substantial in '03, when Germany beat the host United States in the semifinals, then defeated Sweden in overtime for the title. It will be once again. The Americans won't be at home, and there are 12 World Cup newcomers on the roster.
But the memory of falling short in 2003 drives the holdovers from that squad. And they've made sure it also is a motivating force for everyone else on the team.
"You know, I could tell you all the teams we lost to and when," Wambach says, grimacing. "What drives me more is my anger and frustration about the unfinished business, and the need to get more accomplished. OK, I scored the gold medal goal in Greece, but I know I won't rest on those laurels. And I know this team will never rest on any laurels."


Updated : 2021-04-15 06:42 GMT+08:00