Top 10 world stars to watch
There was a time when any discussion of an All-World women's soccer team would generally consist of the U.S. squad sprinkled with a few guest players here and there. The 1999 Women's World Cup disproved such a notion with players such as Sun Wen (China), Sissi (Brazil) and Marianne Pettersen (Norway), among several others, shining throughout the tournament.
But the real eye-opener came over the past three years in the now-defunct WUSA, where most every one of the world's best players showcased their skills for six months of the year.
Dozens of non-Americans who thrived in the U.S. for their clubs will now be leading the way for their respective countries in the World Cup starting on Sept. 20, including the majority of the following list of the top non-U.S. players who will be displaying their talents all over the country for the next three weeks.
1. Hanna Ljungberg, Sweden: The WUSA had been trying to lure this diminutive striker to the U.S. for quite some time. And for good reason, as she's blazed the nets for 48 goals in 89 appearances for Sweden. The 24-year-old striker represents the greatest danger to the U.S. backline of any other player in group play, and will surely take a group effort. "Stopping Hanna is like trying to man-mark Mia Hamm," says U.S. head coach April Heinrichs.
2. Maren Meinert, Germany: German officials spent half of the spring and summer in Boston trying to lure their goal-scoring striker out of international retirement. After she led the Breakers to the regular season title and was named the MVP of the WUSA this past season, the 30-year-old finally relented and has decided to play. Bad news for opponents, as one WUSA coach dubs Meinert "the best player in the world right now."
3. Sun Wen, China: The Golden Ball and Golden Boot winner of the '99 World Cup returns for her final World Cup. The 30-year-old striker has been in China the past season playing for Shanghai SVA and gearing up for her fourth World Cup after playing two seasons in the WUSA for the Atlanta Beat. With 105 goals in 148 games for her country, Wen is one of the greatest goal scorers of all time, and will surely vie for top scoring honors once again in this World Cup.
4. Birgit Prinz, Germany: The runner-up to Mia Hamm as the FIFA Player of the Year in 2002, the 25-year-old has a great mix of size, strength and technical ability. In two seasons for the Carolina Courage, the 5-foot-9 striker has scored 12 and 11 goals, respectively. Partnering with Meinert, Prinz is primed to wrack up a lot of points in this World Cup.
5. Marinette Pichon, France: Has scored 28 goals in two seasons for the Philadelphia Charge, and was the league's MVP as a rookie in 2002. The 27-year-old striker practically carried her French side through qualifying for the World Cup, and will be heavily marked each game. That is, if she plays up front, as her coaches have recently positioned her in the back so that she's around the ball more.
6. Zhao Lihong, China: "Probably the best wide player in the world," says one coach in the WUSA. The 30-year-old outside midfielder possesses the speed and skill level to give opposing defenders fits down the flank, as was seen in 2002 when she led the Philadelphia Charge with nine assists (many were to Pichon). Lihong will be looking to replicate the type of performance she had for China in '99, when she was named to the All-Tournament team.
7. Katia, Brazil: Anyone who has watched this 26-year-old striker play for the San Jose CyberRays knows she can find the back of the net. In three seasons, all Katia has done is score 27 goals, including 15 in 2002 when she led the WUSA in scoring with 36 points. "You always have to worry about her," says U.S. assistant coach Bill Palladnio. Recently, the Rio native had surgery to remove a tennis ball-sized benign tumor from her right ovary and a smaller one from her left ovary, but is set to take the field in her third World Cup for Brazil's opener against Korea on Sept. 21.
8. Hege Riise, Norway: A brilliant midfielder who is looking to play in her fourth World Cup, Riise is still recovering from an ACL tear that occurred on May 15. But as Palladino says, "Even Hege at sixty percent is a tremendous player." The 34-year-old Riise, Norway's captain and all-time leader in caps, remains the greatest playmaker in the world.
9. Dagny Mellgren, Norway: The 25-year-old striker wasn't a starter for Norway in '99, but she should be a major force to be reckoned with this time around. Pairing with Meinert for Boston, Mellgren has become one of the finest scorers in the WUSA. She's scored 36 goals in three years, including 14 in 2003 which tied her with Pichon for the most goals in the league. "She's a threat to score every time she gets the ball," says one WUSA coach.
10. Charmaine Hooper, Canada: Despite being 35 years old and about to play in her third World Cup, the Atlanta Beat striker is still going strong and remains one of the most-fit and tenacious strikers in the world. She's coming off a season where she led Atlanta with 11 goals, as well as two more in the playoffs, including the game-winner in overtime against San Diego to move to Founders Cup III. As always, the fate of the Canadian National Team depends on how many goals Hooper can score.
Others for consideration: Bai Jie (China), Christine Sinclair (Canada), Malin Andersson (Norway), Renate Lingor (Germany) and Ri Kum-suk (Korea DPR).
Marc Connolly covers soccer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.