New faces earn places
Twelve of the 20 players on the Women's World Cup squad have been down this road before, having played in at least one World Cup. These women are the names and faces you know, whether it's longtime veterans like Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain and Julie Foudy, or starters from 1999 such as Kate Sobrero, Cindy Parlow and Shannon MacMillan.
Of the eight players who are testing their skills at this level for the first time, there's a wide gap in experience. Some players, such as goalkeeper Siri Mullinix and Aly Wagner have played a major role on the National Team since April Heinrichs took over as coach in January of 2000. Others, such as Kylie Bivens and Shannon Boxx are relative newcomers, and are not very well-known to casual fans.
To help anyone who has been out-of-touch for the last four-plus years, here is a player-by-player look at those who enter the squad's first match against Sweden on Sept. 21 as World Cup neophytes.
Kylie Bivens: An absolute stalwart for the Atlanta Beat, who has quickly established herself as one of the most hard-nosed defenders in America. The former Santa Clara Bronco can play all over the field, and will give coach Heinrichs several options, including as both a left and right back. Her speed up the flank gives the team a different look when she's on the field.
Analysis from Atlanta Beat head coach Tom Stone: "She's tenacious, for starters. She never quits, never backs down from anybody, and loves a challenge. She was a long shot to make the team, but when she got her foot in the door the last month of the season you knew that she would not let up. I think she made the team over the last four or five games of the WUSA season, right up to the championship game when she had a great game against Mia Hamm."
Shannon Boxx: Uncapped before being selected to the World Cup squad making her the "David Regis" of this side, so to speak. This New York Power midfielder was a great selection -- experienced or not -- as she's one of the best players in the WUSA, and gives the U.S. a strong, physical ball-winner in the center of the midfield. Either paired with Aly Wagner or Julie Foudy in a four-man midfield or alone in a 4-3-3, as she was positioned against Mexico, the Notre Dame grad will be a force to be reckoned with in this World Cup. She may even find herself starting against Sweden on Sept. 21 due to her recent emergence, which has included scoring two goals in two games.
Analysis from U.S. National Team head coach April Heinrichs: "I've never seen a player -- ever, there's no comparison -- to (compare) how smooth Shannon Boxx's transition has been coming in to the team, on and off the field. I wouldn't have selected her if I expected her to sit on the bench for us for the World Cup. I do have confidence to put her in amongst the veterans."
Angela Hucles: A hard-working midfielder who gives the squad an added offensive weapon as a wide midfielder. Heinrichs coached Hucles at the University of Virginia, so she was aware of her skill level, but it's been her strong play in the WUSA for the Boston Breakers (she was recently traded to the San Diego Spirit) that made her a mainstay on this team the last two years.
Analysis from Boston Breakers assistant coach John Natale: "Angela is very good on the ball. She's a good passer and a very technical player. She has a calming presence when she receives the ball. What stands out with her is how versatile she is, as she can play a lot of different positions."
Siri Mullinix: Coming off a great string of performances for the WUSA champion Washington Freedom. She was the team's clear-cut starter in goal for most of the time between 1999 and now, including the 2000 Olympics, but injuries combined with the strong play of Briana Scurry have put her a tad behind in the competition for the starting goalkeeper role. Being the second most-capped goalkeeper in U.S. history and in-form gives the U.S. an incredible luxury of having two of the world's finest keepers to choose from.
Heinrichs: "I have great confidence to put Siri in for any of the World Cup games."
Natale: "Siri is very good with her feet back there. She organizes the defense well, and there's a real consistency in her play, especially in the WUSA."
Cat Reddick: At 21, this University of North Carolina senior is the youngest on the squad, and lone college player, much like Lorrie Fair was in 1999. But her 36 caps with the National Team has erased any greenness in her game and poise on the field. With her talent, Reddick will be a fixture on the backline for the next decade, and is destined to be an instant star in the WUSA next season as the likely top selection in the draft. While her future is seemingly as a central defender where she can lead the defense, her role for the U.S. in this tournament will be as an outside back. The offensive punch she can provide with her long-range shots -- she's not afraid to pull the trigger one bit -- and excellent balls up to the forwards will surely win her some playing time.
Heinrichs (comments in USA Today): "She is strong, powerful, athletic and technically-gifted. She's got good speed and as a defender can play center or wide back on the left or right."
Danielle Slaton: This gifted left back was the youngest player in Sydney for the 2000 Olympics. Her man-to-man defending and offensive presence helps ease the transition now that Brandi Chastain has moved from left back to the central defense. After a strong rookie season for Carolina in 2002 (WUSA defensive MVP), the four-time All-American from Santa Clara missed the Gold Cup due to knee surgery. The 23-year-old returned this year to give Heinrichs another starting option as an outside back. With 40 caps, she has the most experience of the newcomers to the defensive unit since 1999.
Heinrichs (comments in News and Observer on June 29): "She has proven herself to me and proven herself be the best defender in the WUSA."
Aly Wagner: A wizard with the ball, last year's Hermann Trophy winner gives the U.S. a dynamic attacking midfielder who can create a scoring opportunity out of nothing. Plays best in a 4-4-2 when she has a defensive midfielder -- Foudy, Boxx or Tiffany Roberts -- behind her for cover. She led the team in 2002 with 11 assists, and will likely be among the top scorers in the World Cup because of her playmaking. Heinrichs has noted that her rookie season in the WUSA has "hardened her physically and psychologically," which has helped the 23-year-old fit in to the team more like a veteran than a player one year removed from her senior season at Santa Clara.
Stone: "Aly needs time and space to hurt you, and playing with the National Team she finds that because there are so many great players around her. If you give Aly the time to serve, she's one of the best passers in the world. And I think our forwards will be the beneficiaries."
Abby Wambach: Started the final two exhibitions -- once with Cindy Parlow in a 4-4-2 and most recently against Mexico with Parlow and Hamm in a 4-3-3, and appears to be in line for a premier role as a striker in this tournament. Her nine goals in 14 games for the National Team mirrors her production level for the WUSA champion Freedom over the past two seasons. Strong and powerful at 5-foot-10, Wambach's style and play is reminiscent to a young Michelle Akers, which is about the best compliment a 23-year-old player can receive.
Stone: "Abby is, in my book, the best young forward in the world. She's got it all -- power, speed, focus in front of the goal and a will to win that reminds you of all the great U.S. players in history."
Marc Connolly covers soccer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at: email@example.com.