U.S. encounters enigmatic North Koreans
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Joy Fawcett didn't blink before answering the question posed as to what she knew about the North Korea side the U.S. is playing on Sunday afternoon (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET).
"Nothing," said the 35-year-old defender, explaining how the final Group A opponent does not get out of the Asian region too often.
Ask Kristine Lilly what she remembers about playing the North Koreans in the 1999 World Cup -- the only time the two countries have met -- and she'll speak of Tisha Venturini's flip during a post-goal celebration of the team's 3-0 victory at Foxboro during first-round play. Other than that, she doesn't recall too much, and will rely on what the coaching staff brings to the table on Saturday evening.
"We'll get a scouting report the night before the game, and I'm sure we'll see a very organized and quick team," said Lilly, "But they're a different team than they were in '99, and so are we."
So, in a way, the U.S. is taking on the ultimate mystery opponent this weekend. April Heinrichs said she's now seen the North Koreans play four times on tape, and we'll re-watch one of their matches from this tournament before Sunday's game. She feels that her staff knows North Korea's tendencies and their personalities on the field, but not nearly as well as opponents such as Sweden and Norway -- a likely quarterfinal opponent -- who they play in tournaments and friendly matches year-in and year-out.
"We don't have that knowledge of having played against them," said Heinrichs. "And that's a whole different level of knowledge. So I don't feel, right now, that we know what we're going to do exactly (in terms of the lineup). We're about halfway there."
What the U.S. will see on tape from the two games North Korea has played over the past week is an imbalanced side, which is strong up the middle, but weak on the outside.
The team plays a 4-5-1 most of the time, but has switched to a 3-5-2 in the past, as it did in the second half against Sweden. The player to watch is Ri Un Gyong, who runs the show as the center midfielder. The whole offense moves through her, and she's capable of making things happen either by springing her teammates open with passes or by cutting through the defense herself.
Gyong will try to spring both Ri Kum Suk, who plays as a withdrawn forward, and Pyol Hui Jin, who stays up top as the target striker. Though Ri Kum Suk led the team with 15 goals in Asian qualifying and is the first player usually mentioned when discussing the North Korean side, the player the U.S. needs to keep an eye on the most is Pyol Hui Jin. She is as creative as they come with a whole arsenal of dummy runs around the box to surprise the defense, and she finds her teammates as well as she can go to goal, as witnessed by her two goals in the 3-0 victory over Nigeria last Saturday.
"They know exactly how to get behind defenders," said Wambach, who watched them play the Super Falcons.
Defensively, their back four is shaky, at best. Outside of the strong play of centerback Sin Hum Ok, who will challenge every ball played in the air to Cindy Parlow and Abby Wambach, this is an area that the U.S. can exploit.
Ra Mi Ae, the right back, was a noticeable sore spot for her squad in the team's 1-0 loss to Sweden on Thursday night. She won't be able to get by on shaky clearances and poor marking if Mia Hamm lines up on the left side, as she has been doing throughout the tournament.
Goalkeeper Ri Jong Hui is quick and very athletic, and will undoubtedly make things more difficult for the U.S. players than they experienced the other night against Nigerian goalkeeper Precious Dede.
Whether the American players remember the names or the numbers of these players for the match, they recognize this type of opponent. One whose back is against the wall, and will be playing to win, as it looks like a one-point tie won't be enough for the North Koreans to advance as the second-place team in the group unless Nigeria upsets Sweden.
"They are playing in desperation to advance in this tournament," said Wambach, who scored one of the five U.S. goals against Nigeria. "And whenever you get a team playing in desperation, you have to be very careful. You have to finish them early, and you can't just score one or two goals. We gotta finish this team off by three or four goals."
The U.S. doesn't want to leave any room for error, and certainly wants to deliver the knockout punch early leave so that the North Koreans don't ever feel as though they are in the match.
Even one goal early on could do such a thing to the defending Asian champion's confidence, considering that they'll likely take the field already knowing they need a victory over the U.S. to advance, perhaps even by multiple goals should Sweden beat Nigeria by a lopsided score.
"It's the equivalent of being down a goal with thirty minutes left," said Heinrichs, whose team enjoys a plus-seven goal differential compared to North Korea (+2) and Sweden (-1) should the group end with three teams tied with a 2-1 record. "They're gonna throw everything at us. The kitchen sink is coming at us."
Toss politics into this mix, and an upset for North Korea in this game would be similar to what happened in the 1972 Olympics when Russia beat the U.S. for the gold medal in basketball in one of the most controversial endings of all-time, as well as what happened in the 1980 Winter Olympics "Miracle On Ice" when the U.S. shocked Russia, and then Finland, to win the gold.
"I'm sure," said Heinrichs, "there are emotional, political and practical implications for their players."
Should the U.S. stave off the North Koreans early in the match and get up by a few goals, it'll give Heinrichs the opportunity to rest thirty-something veterans like Hamm, Lilly and Julie Foudy, who have each played 90 minutes in both matches.
It could even call for an appearance by Shannon MacMillan, who is only four months removed from tearing her ACL. Heinrichs said that MacMillan is doing well, it's just a case of timing. It didn't make sense to expose her to a physical side like Nigeria on Thursday night, so perhaps a multiple-goal lead in the second half could lead to her insertion into the lineup.
"I don't have any concerns," said the U.S. coach. "She looks good; she looks strong."
Heinrichs does have a shortened bench for this match, as midfielder Angela Hucles joins Brandi Chastain (broken foot) and Danielle Slaton (sore knee) on the injury list with a stress fracture in her tibia, which will sideline her indefinitely.
Kate Sobrero took quite a hit from Patience Avre the other night, which left her limping the final 10 minutes of the match. Heinrichs said that Sobrero is walking fine, and that she's hopeful she will play.
Should the U.S. side win the "Group of Death," they'll move on to the quarterfinals at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass., to take on the second place finisher in Group B, which will be Norway barring any upsets, on Oct. 1.
Marc Connolly covers soccer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at: email@example.com.