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U.S. changes for the better

The road to the 2003 Women's World Cup hasn't always been a smooth one for the U.S. National Team.

They've had to adjust to a new coaching staff, the retirement of two of the greatest female soccer players of all-time in Michelle Akers and Carla Overbeck, the changing of roles for key veterans, and the letdown of watching the Norwegians dance around in Sydney with their Gold Medals after a thrilling 3-2 overtime upset victory over the Americans.

There was even a losing record for the year of 2001 that's worth noting after the U.S. went 3-5-2 and was outscored 15 to 13 by opponents during that first season of the WUSA. April Heinrichs capped 49 players over those 12 months alone.

However, there have been far more positive developments to talk about with this team, including the following five major storylines that have helped shape this group of 20 women into the juggernaut that'll be out to defend its title over the three-week tournament starting on Sept. 21 against Sweden.

1. Changes in the back

Heinrichs made a bold move last year when she shifted Brandi Chastain from her left back position to the central defense to pair with Joy Fawcett. Here she had the most lethal attacking outside back in the world -- the female version of Brazilian magician Roberto Carlos, if you will -- yet felt that the leadership and extreme savvy that Chastain possesses would aid the team more as a central defender. Heinrichs also had to explain to Kate Sobrero, who started as a central defender in the World Cup alongside Overbeck, why the move was made.

"I think, initially," said Heinrichs, "she thought that this might be some sort of demotion. I had to explain to her, Look, we just as a team want to be more versatile. And, as an individual, part of the way to get more playing time is to be more versatile. After we explained it … Kate embraced being a right back."

While Sobrero's technical abilities have noticeably improved -- her defending and ball-winning skills have never been in question -- and her ability to play both as a left and right back have helped ease the loss of the presence that Chastain brought on the outside, the real story has been the transition in central defense.

"We had a lot of talent on the wings, but not as much experienced talent in the middle," said assistant coach Bill Palladino. "Losing Carla was a huge void for this team, not only as a central player but as a leader. And Brandi is a particularly strong leader, who is very vocal, very confident and has a tremendous understanding as a true student of the game. We were looking for that in that position, so we decided to try it out and see how it worked.

"Almost immediately, we saw a tremendous chemistry between her and Joy and got a real anchor to our defense. That sold us, as coaches, to keep Brandi in the middle. In addition, she's very good in the air and a strong server of the ball, so the other skills were there. We just knew that she could take over the void that Carla left on the field."

As Chastain has become more comfortable, she's been able to make her patented runs up the field to get on the end of crosses from the flank and to aid the attack out of the back. The partnership that she and Fawcett have established is now the strength of the team, which has given the U.S., without question, the best centerback duo in the world.

"We have built our backline and our entire defensive scheme around Brandi and Joy," said Heinrichs, "and I think we will display some of the best defensive teams in the tournament."

2. Re-emergence of Briana Scurry

After not playing for the U.S. for nearly two years (most of 2000 and all of 2001), the most-capped and most experienced American goalkeeper is back on the squad and playing like the keeper we saw lead the team to the World Cup in 1999. This past season, she was named the WUSA Goalkeeper of the Year playing with the Atlanta Beat, a Founders Cup finalist, and has picked up right where she left off for the National Team the past two years upping her record to 28-0-4 over her last 32 games.

It came after a year in 2000 when she inexplicably let herself get out of shape and seemed to lose interest in the game she's played all of her life.

"At some point we all hit a bump in the road that causes us to reflect and evaluate what we're doing in life," said Chastain, "and I think 2000 was the year for Briana. The change in her is something that only she could've made happen. She's completely responsible for her turnaround back to being the incredible goalkeeper that she is."

The starter in both the 1995 and 1999 World Cups also seems to inspire more confidence in the U.S. defense -- and more fear in the opposition -- when she is on the field, much like the U.S. men have reacted to having Kasey Keller in the goal for so many years.

Siri Mullinix is an excellent goalkeeper and will certainly push for playing time in this World Cup, but Scurry at her best gives the U.S. the best option as far as having someone back there who can make that one game-changing tip over the bar or grab in traffic off a corner kick that separates her from the other keepers in the world.

3. Wagner's creativity

Aly Wagner's insertion into the starting lineup last year changed the whole look of the U.S. lineup. Still an undergrad at Santa Clara at the time, the 23-year-old took over the reigns as the team's attacking midfielder and went on to lead the squad with 11 assists. The 2002 Hermann Trophy winner is known for springing strikers free for open looks at the goal with a variety of passes, whether it's a no-look ball with the outside of her foot, a deft back heel or a textbook chip with just the right amount of pace.

With Wagner wreaking havoc behind the strikers, it has also opened up the flanks for Kristine Lilly and Julie Foudy, as teams are not able to key on them as they once were. Same goes for the strikers, particularly Shannon MacMillan and Cindy Parlow, who led the team in scoring in 2002 by finishing several chances created by Wagner.

Playing in her rookie season in the WUSA for the San Diego Spirit helped to season Wagner, as well, which is something Heinrichs has noticed. It hardened her and tested her will, as it marked the first time that she wasn't easily able to have her way in the midfield in matches when she's playing against U.S. teammates such as Shannon Boxx and Tiffany Roberts who could mark her well. It's only aided her game for the international level.

"She's dangerous with and without the ball," said Heinrichs. "And she's more versatile and more mobile than she was at the start of the WUSA season."

4. System change

This side has mostly played in a 4-4-2 over the last four years, which is a change from the system that Tony DiCicco employed for so long.

Even when Heinrichs switches the squad to a 4-3-3, as she did against Mexico last Sunday, it differs from DiCicco's 4-3-3, which featured two attacking midfielders (Lilly and Foudy) playing in front of a holding midfielder (Akers) in a triangular alignment.

The group that we'll see in this World Cup will offer up more service from the flanks than we saw in '99, and will see more movement up top with the strikers. Even when Heinrichs goes to a three-forward formation with Mia Hamm, Abby Wambach and Parlow, there'll be a lot more diagonal runs to space all over the attacking third than simply having one player hold in the middle with the other two holding down a wing position.

The same exists out of the back, as outside backs Sobrero, Christie Pearce, Cat Reddick, Danielle Slaton and Kylie Bivens will be interchangeable on the field -- Sobrero and Pearce have been known to switch sides on their own both in the games and during practice -- and more mobile moving up the field into the attack.

Going with four midfielders also plays to the team's strengths, particularly when Wagner is slotted in front of a hard-working ball-winner like Shannon Boxx or an organizer such as Foudy who can act as the fulcrum to the attack. It also opens up a role for a player like Roberts, who is capable of harassing an opposing attacking midfielder right out of the game with her speed, tenacity and non-stop engine.

5. The Intangibles

Despite losing Akers and Overbeck, the heart and soul of this team is still intact.

With Foudy, Chastain and Fawcett as the main voices within the locker room to go along with the quiet and steady leadership that Hamm and Lilly provide, Heinrichs and her staff hardly needs to worry about letdowns or mental preparation. Just as was the case in '99, this group continues to define what a team is all about as far as unselfishness and camaraderie goes.

"We get along very well," said Chastain, who is virtually an on-field coach. "Kristine Lilly and I were just talking about this yesterday, and we were saying how we just get along so well. We look forward to seeing who our roommates will be when we show up on Friday. We love each other and we want to take care of each other and we want to play this World Cup."

There's also an underlying, but deep, sense of hunger within this team. In '99, the goal was not only to recapture the Cup back from the Norwegians, but also to help promote the sport in this country and use the momentum to ultimately establish a league of their own.

Even though the U.S. is still the holder of the Cup, the world's top ranking and the title of pre-tournament favorite, there is still a hunger there from losing to Norway in the final match in Sydney.

The U.S. can never go by the "us against the world" mantra that most every professional team seems to use for motivation. It's just not like that with this group considering all the titles they've won together and the overwhelming success story they've been as athletes and as ambassadors.

But, do not underestimate the amount of inspiration that they can draw from the stories found within the locker room, whether it's Fawcett's ability to return to the field once again after having another child, Scurry's comeback, the personal sacrifices many have experienced for the good of the game (i.e. founding players taking a cut in the WUSA for Year Three) and, especially, the amazing rehabilitation story of MacMillan after tearing her ACL in the spring.

"She's been a wonderful example of how to fight through tough things," said Chastain, "and we're going to go through tough times during this World Cup and we can use her as an example."

Marc Connolly covers soccer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at: shaketiller10@yahoo.com.