Just a hunch, but maybe it's the outrageously unbalanced draw
that left the defending gold medalist Americans facing their two
toughest rivals in the first week. On Sept. 14, the day before
opening ceremonies, the U.S. takes on 1995 World Cup champion
Norway and three days later the Yanks meet China, which took the
U.S. to penalty kicks in the memorable '99 World Cup final. The
bottom line: To give host Australia a sweetheart draw in the
other group, FIFA, the sport's governing body, ensured that one
of the world's three best teams will get knocked out before the
"It's the single most difficult and challenging draw FIFA has
ever put out to a team that was ranked Number 1 in the world,"
says new U.S. coach April Heinrichs, who took over for Tony
DiCicco in January. And? "And we love it. Every time somebody
says there's something this team can't do, we prove them wrong."
Most of the gang from the World Cup '99 is back--Mia Hamm, Brandi
Chastain, Kristine Lilly and Julie Foudy included--for what will
surely be the veterans' last major tournament together. Yet
there's a decidedly different feel to this team. Heinrichs
stunned the players initially by dropping five reserves from the
World Cup roster, and in Sydney the team won't be able to count
on three of the most important figures from the Cup team.
Midfielder Michelle Akers retired from international competition
last month because of a shoulder injury and chronic fatigue
syndrome. Defensive organizer Carla Overbeck, discovered in April
to have Graves' disease, is coming back from torn cartilage in
her right knee and may not play any more than a reserve role.
Goalkeeper Briana Scurry reported to the Olympic residency camp
slowed by 20 extra pounds and various nagging injuries; she
promptly lost her starting job to 22-year-old Siri Mullinix.
In other words, to win a third straight world championship the
Americans will not only have to survive the mother of all
schedules but also do it with a new goalkeeper and without the
anchors of their defense and midfield. This much is certain for
Team USA: The road to gold couldn't get much more difficult.
COLOR PHOTO: MITCHELL LAYTON/NEWSPORT SAVING FACE Goalie Mullinix, who wasn't on the '99 World Cup team, will be one of a few new starters for the U.S.