After the U.S.'sdisappointing first-round exit at the recent World Cup, the attention of U.S.Soccer has already shifted toward the new-look women's team, which is in themidst of a six-month residency outside Los Angeles in preparation for the 2007Women's World Cup in China. And while the purpose of its three-game exhibitionseries this month is to develop chemistry among the many new players on theroster--the Americans will look for their fifth straight win of 2006 when theymeet Canada this Sunday in Cary, N.C.--forward Abby Wambach can't help but takea playful dig at her male counterparts. "We're trying to get a couple ofgames under our belt," says Wambach, 26, cracking a wry smile, "andgive some of the American fans a good soccer team to watch." (Ouch,babe.)
At a time whensome countries have throttled down on their women's programs--2004 Olympicsilver-medalist Brazil, shamefully, hasn't played since falling to the U.S. inthe final in Athens--U.S. Soccer is sinking more than $4 million into the teamthis year. With the departures in '04 of stars Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, BrandiChastain and Joy Fawcett, there are more chances than ever for young players tocrack the lineup. "Usually new players are nervous and don't want the ballhalf the time, but these young players have a look in their eyes that they wantto learn and do everything they can to help," says 35-year-old captainKristine Lilly, one of the few players remaining from the 1999 World Cupchampions.
And undersecond-year coach Greg Ryan, the fresh faces are making large contributions.Goalkeeper Hope Solo, 24, has started 17 of the last 20 games, though she facesa battle now that veteran Briana Scurry has returned after taking a year off.Tina Frimpong, 24, brings unprecedented speed to the U.S. center back position.In the defensive midfield Leslie Osborne, 23, is filling in for 29-year-oldShannon Boxx, perhaps the U.S.'s most influential player, who'll miss the nextsix to eight months after blowing out her right knee. Rising talent CarliLloyd, 24, has shown promise as an attacking midfielder. Up front, HeatherO'Reilly, 21, has taken over a starting spot, while tattooed supersub NatashaKai, 23, has four goals in her first seven games.
Not that Ryan hashad to start from scratch. Wambach, who scored the game-winning goal in theOlympic final, remains the U.S.'s most feared player, a bone-crunching strikerwho takes pleasure in dominating defenders. As for Lilly, the ageless wonderholds the world record for national-team appearances (309), but that hasn'tkept her from winning the team's fitness tests and and scoring 10 goals overthe past two years. "I'm not ready to call it quits," says Lilly, who'splaying strictly as a forward these days in Ryan's aggressive 4-3-3 formation.What do retirees like Hamm, Foudy and Fawcett think of her staying power?"They can't believe I'm still doing it, and some days I can't either,"Lilly says. "But I still enjoy playing."
And, of course,winning. Since Ryan took over for April Heinrichs in early 2005, the U.S. hasgone 16-0-4 (including one penalty-kick loss that officially counts as a tie).After being subjected to the ironfisted rule of Heinrichs, who would mandatehow many touches players could have on the ball, Wambach calls Ryan "moreof a players' coach. He's more willing for us to have creativity and takerisks." The result is an entertaining team that can give up goals but scoreplenty of its own; witness the U.S.'s wild 3--2 win over Sweden on July 15, inwhich the teams combined to score three times in the final five minutes.
The 49-year-oldRyan, a former North American Soccer League defender, says his main objectiveis to rebuild and win at the same time, and he's not afraid to be bold whenasked to handicap next year's World Cup. "I think we're the favorites,"he says. "So far we've outplayed every international team we've faced, andthat includes pretty much all the top teams other than Brazil." Ryan andhis team have 13 months before they'll have to back up that talk in China, butthey'll be wise to remember: In women's soccer the rest of the world isimproving too.
The Road to China
AFTER THE U.S. women's soccer team wraps up trainingcamp and exhibition games this summer, the march to the World Cup begins. Hereare the key events to watch for.
CONCACAF Gold Cup In November the U.S. hosts thefinals of the Gold Cup, the championship of North America, Central America andthe Caribbean (dates and venues to be announced), with the top two teamsearning a World Cup berth. Odds favor the U.S., which has a bye to the semis inthe six-team field. Even if the Americans lose, they could earn a ticket toChina by winning the third-place game and then beating the third-place teamfrom the Asia region.
World Cup draw Next spring, after qualifying hasnarrowed the field to 16, those teams will be matched up in four World Cupgroups.
World Cup On Sept. 10, 2007, the Cup returns to China,which staged the inaugural event, in 1991. Five cities will play host to the20-day tournament: Wuhan, Chengdu, Guangzhou, Tainjin and Shanghai.
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Lilly (13) has jelled well on the front line with O'Reilly (9) and Wambach(21).