Sept. 10, 2007
By Michael Lewis
Talent-laden U.S. enters WWC as team to beat
There's no Mia, Julie, Brandi or even Tiffeny on this team.
|U.S. captain and forward Kristine Lilly still is motoring around at the ripe young age of 36. She enters the WWC with a record 331 international appearances.
Linda Cuttone/Sports Vue Images
Yet, there are some people out there in the soccer universe who feel that this particular version of the U.S. Women's National Team is virtually unbeatable.
And we're not talking pony-tailed 11-year-old Mia Hamm wannabes.
No, we're talking 54-year-old, gray-haired National Team coaches.
That 54-year-old happens to be Canadian national coach Even Pellerud, who once was the biggest nemesis and headache for the American women when he pushed the buttons of those great Norway teams of the 1990s. Pellerud directed the Norwegians to the 1991, where they lost in dramatic fashion to the U.S., and in 1995, when they captured their first and only world championship.
So, if Pellerud wanted to diss the team, no one would blame him.
"I almost expected them to go a little bit backwards when some of their girls stopped playing, but that has not happened," he said. "They are so athletic. Just go beside them in a tunnel and they're scary. Combined with their high skill level and scoring machines like Kristine Lilly and Abby Wambach, it is really hard to see where you can beat them. You have to have a good game plan and have some luck as well. They have so many tools. They are just the strongest team in the world."
Strong praise indeed from a former and current nemesis.
But surely Pellerud has a way to defeat the U.S., doesn't he?
Well, even Even had difficulty finding something easy enough to exploit.
"You certainly can see some tactical unbalance things that you can try to take advantage of," Pellerud said. "I don't think anyone can beat them (athletically). You have to beat them tactically. So far they resist to be beaten. So I think you have to go with tactics to become a little bit smarter."
So it shouldn't be surprising that the U.S. enters the fifth Women's World Cup as favorites. The Americans kick off their quest for a third world title Tuesday, when they take on North Korea in Chengdu, China (ESPN2, 4:55 a.m.).
They also enter the competition unbeaten in 30 consecutive matches and haven't lost in regulation in 45 games (yes, that’s correct – 45 games), an astounding record at any level, let alone the highest one you can attain.
"I do think this team expects to win," said U.S. coach Greg Ryan, a former member of the New York Cosmos. "To go on this long without picking up a loss some where is very unusual. It is not something that we expected to happen. We just play each game and try to win each one. We definitely focus on winning the game in front of us. So far it has worked out pretty well."
Indeed it has.
So it shouldn't be surprising the Americans enter the tournament confident they can secure yet another title. The U.S. has won in alternating competitions every eight years -- 1991 and 1999. So, if the team soccer biological clock is on, 2007 should be right on target.
"You've got to be great in all areas to win the thing," Ryan said. "We have a fantastic defense and I say that the whole team plays great defense. . . . The other thing is that we have great attacking players. We're going to be a very difficult team to shut out. I just think that this team has got all of the elements.
"This team is a very hungry team. This is a team that wants to prove that they can win a world championship just like the guys did back in '99.”
Replacing the above mentioned talent (by the way, that's Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Brandi Chastain and Tiffeny Milbrett for the uneducated) wasn't easy. But Ryan has managed to put together a team with a very good generation of players. There might not be a Mia Hamm in the bunch, but these players can play this game.
More importantly, they can win it.
Probably the two most important members of the new generation are central midfield with Carli Lloyd and Lori Chalupny, a converted left fullback. Lloyd enjoyed her coming out party during the Americans' championship run to the Algarve Cup title in March, scoring four goals in as many games.
"Carli's made a really big impact on the team," Ryan said. "We've moved her and Lori Chalupny into the middle of the midfield and it just changed our midfield because they're so dynamic. They're not only skillful midfielders who can keep possession, but they're dynamic attacking players. And that's Carli's real strength. We all saw the potential for her to break out and really dominate in the midfield for us. We kept putting her on the field, putting her on the field, just knowing that once she gets a goal or two, she's just going to cut loose, and that's what's happened. It's great because we really needed somebody to step up there in an attacking role in the midfield because we weren't producing very many goals from our midfield last year."
Midfielder Shannon Boxx, who enjoyed a breakout Cup in 2003, missed several months recovering from a knee injury. She is back.
"She's doing great," Ryan said. "It's one of those injuries where it does take time just to get your quickness back, agility, speed. Shannon is just a mature, calm player that she is able to step out there and do a real good job while she is getting her legs back under her."
Two familiar names will start up front. Kristine Lilly, 36, who has played in more international matches (331) than any other person on the planet, has scored 126 goals and assisted on 100 others.
"She's just an amazing athlete," Ryan said. "When we get 15 years down the road and we look back and we say, 'You know, who was that amazing athlete that was able to continue on for so long and be able to maintain this level?' You could say that's Kristine Lilly that maintained her performances at the highest level for 20 years, 25 years, maybe."
The most dangerous weapon is Wambach, who scores goals at the fastest rate of any player (80.2 percent, 77 goals in 96 international games, including a team-high 11 this year).
"I'm glad she's playing for us," Ryan said with a laugh, "because she's a handful. She's strong, physical, athletic, dynamic striker. Just a pure goalscorer who will find a way. If it's not working one way she'll find another way. She's great in the air, great on the ground."
Wambach gave Ryan and the rest of the American contingent a big scare after sustaining what looked like a serious toe injury in a 4-0 win over Finland last month.
"The World Cup floated in front of my eyes," she told ESPN2.
But she said he was OK.
Added Ryan: "She's going to be fine. It's sore."
The solid defense is led by goalkeeper Hope Solo, who has secured the position from No. 1 Brianna Scurry, and backliners Christie Rampone, Cat Whitehill and veteran Kate Markgraf.
"We just have great talent on this team," Ryan said. "You're not going to be able to have this kind of success without great players. I think the other thing is just the unique blend we have of veteran leadership who are still fantastic players mixed in with a lot of young players that very talented, very enthusiastic, very energetic. It just makes a great mix."
So, there's pressure on the U.S. Right? Well, not exactly.
“The standard that has been set for this team over the course of two decades has been a way of life," Wambach said. "The pressure that people on the outside may perceive is not as great as you may think as we enter a highly competitive training environment every day. When you are on a world’s stage and you’re training for a world championship, the pressure does get increased more, but I actually enjoy pressure. I thrive under pressure.”
Unfortunately for the rest of the field, many of her teammates do as well.