U.S., Norway rivalry runs deep
PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- When a reporter informed April Heinrichs that Cindy Parlow had just said how she hasn't forgotten the U.S. team's loss to Norway in the 2000 Olympics gold-medal match, the visor-wearing American coach smiled.
"Good," she said. "Me neither."
In one regard, Wednesday night's quarterfinal against the Norwegians is a grudge match of sorts, as the U.S. players vividly remember walking off the field that day in Sydney after the 3-2 overtime loss with a certain level of frustration.
"There wasn't much more we could've done that day," recalls Kristine Lilly, who played every minute in that game. "It was just their day."
Yet, in another way, that game is a distant memory. The demons haven't been fully exorcised, but the U.S. has played Norway six times since the Olympics (3-3) and has beaten the European power the last three matches, including two games in 2003. Those victories have closed the gap on Norway's winning record over the U.S. to 16-18-2.
Whether it's the recent past, the overall history itself or the fact that the two nations have won every single major championship between them, the U.S. players aren't putting much credence in numbers or statistics. They're also not buying the whispers that are out there saying that Norway isn't as strong as they have been in the past.
As is the case with all great rivalries on Thanksgiving Day high school football games, in the passionate collegiate brouhahas between Michigan and Ohio State or Duke and North Carolina, or even in professional sports during Red Sox-Yankees wars, you simply throw the records out.
"I gotta think that it's a lot like a 'Monday Night Football' game," says Heinrichs. "You rarely see anything but a one-goal difference between the two of us."
Shannon Boxx started getting excited for this potential matchup last week while approximately half of the American side watched Norway play Brazil in Champs sports bar in downtown Philadelphia.
"I kept hearing stories about the rivalry, and it pumped me up," says Boxx, who started the first two games for the U.S. and was rested against North Korea on Sunday. "I'm anxious to be a part of it."
Showing support for her fiancé Nomar Garciaparra by sporting a worn-in Boston Red Sox cap at the team's media hotel, Mia Hamm was asked if Norway-U.S. compares to the Sox-Yankees rivalry. After contemplating the question for several seconds, the star striker threw it right back to the media.
"I don't know," said Hamm. "Who would we be?"
Right now, the U.S. would be the Yankees. And Norway would be the Red Sox -- not the current squad that got hot down the stretch to win the wildcard, but the one that usually can't match up player-for-player with the Yanks when they meet.
When everyone is healthy, Norway is as capable of beating the U.S. as any other side in the world. That's just not the case this time around. Star midfielder Hege Riise is still recovering from an ACL injury last May while playing for the Carolina Courage in the WUSA. At one-hundred percent, Riise is one of the best all-around players in the world. Period. She has eyes all over her head, and is capable of making every player around her better in the way that a great point guard can in basketball.
The 34-year-old playmaker led the Norway to the World Cup title in '95, winning the Golden Ball as the tournament's top player and the Silver Boot as the second-leading goal scorer. She tallied three goals in '99, and two in '91 when Norway finished second to the U.S. in China.
In this tournament, she has been limited to making spot appearances for her squad, and didn't even step onto the field in Norway's 4-1 loss to Brazil until the game was out of reach. Earlier on Tuesday, Riise said that she's hoping to play for 30 minutes. Heinrichs believes it'll be more than that.
"I'm guessing she'll play forty-five minutes tomorrow," says the U.S. coach.
Whether she's her usual self is another question. If she isn't, just her presence out there as a four-time World Cup veteran and as her country's all-time leader in caps could be vital to her side.
"Even Hege at sixty percent in a tremendous player," says assistant coach Bill Palladino.
Says Boxx: "You know you have to keep her close. If she turns on you and plays the ball, it's gonna be a goal, because she'll find the place to set up one of her teammates."
Those teammates that she'll look to set up include strikers Dagny Mellgren and Marianne Pettersen. Mellgren, who was a perfect complement to German star Maren Meinert as a front-running pair for the Boston Breakers, will stay up top and look to stretch the defense. The quicker, more active Pettersen is in a more withdrawn role, and sees more of the ball.
Lilly knows all about the danger that Mellgren can create for opposing defenses.
"I call her a sneaky player," says Lilly, who has been a teammate of Mellgren's all three years of the WUSA's existence. "She times her runs incredibly. She gets behind the back line very good. And when she has the ball at her feet, she's deadly inside the box."
One of the biggest obstacles that most teams deal with when facing the U.S. is the psychological aspect of the game. Many opponents look across the field, see the U.S. jerseys, and are immediately intimidated, in the same way that men's teams are when they see Brazil's famed yellow jerseys staring them back in the face. Norway doesn't have this sort of fear, though. They've stood toe-to-toe with the Americans, and beat them on the grandest of stages. They will not back down or throw in the towel if they get down a goal or two right off the bat.
"They're winners," deadpans Heinrichs describing the Norwegians. "They're strong women. They're hardened women. They believe in themselves, and they believe in each other."
Going all the way back to the 1991 World Cup final, where the U.S. outlasted Norway 2-1, to the 1995 final when Norway avenged that loss with a 1-0 victory in Sweden, Heinrichs has experienced this rivalry as a player, an assistant coach and as a head coach over two dozens times.
"I have seen first-hand, up close and personal, that Norway will never give up," says Heinrichs. "They'll never quit playing."
Strategically speaking, Heinrichs will look to send a lineup out on the field that will combine both the quickness and agility that she says will cause Norway difficulty, as well as a powerful unit that will challenge them for every head ball. It could result in a similar starting unit that lined up against Sweden in the opening match of the World Cup. Obviously, Brandi Chastain (broken foot) will not be out there, but besides the insertion of Cat Reddick into the back four, it could look the same.
Lilly, Boxx and Julie Foudy are likely to start in the midfield with Hamm, Parlow and Abby Wambach in front of them. In the back, Joy Fawcett, Kate Sobrero and Reddick appear to be locks. The only question is whether Christie Pearce or Kylie Bivens will get the nod at right back.
It's a matchup that'll be more exciting than usual at this stage in the tournament, and one that the players won't need "another ounce of motivation" for, as Heinrichs said.
"This," says Lilly, "is the type of game you live for in the World Cup."
Marc Connolly covers soccer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.