U.S., Germany set for Portland pitch battle
BEAVERTON, Ore. -- Forget about those ridiculous FIFA rankings. Disregard the fact that it's a semifinal game. And get it out of your mind right now that U.S.-China was supposed to be the Dream Matchup in this World Cup.
The Heavyweight Title fight is on Sunday.
This Sunday. Not on Oct. 12 at the Home Depot Center. It's here at PGE Park, which will play host to the best two women's soccer teams on the planet: U.S. and Germany.
Officially, it's one of two semifinal matches being played along with Sweden-Canada to decide who will play at the HDC for the championship. Unofficially, it's the true battle for world supremacy, as well as the game that everyone has been waiting to see since the draw was announced.
Despite steamrolling through their opponents by scoring 20 goals in four games, including Thursday's 7-1 shellacking of Russia in the quarterfinals, the Germans are not the favorites in this match. And they shouldn't be. But the fact of the matter is that Germany appears to be the only team in the world that has the firepower to beat the U.S. when the Americans are on their game.
That's all because of their explosive offense, which is centered around two players -- Maren Meinert and Birgit Prinz.
"Defensively," says Joy Fawcett, "we're just going to have to be very 'on.'"
Some people are even trying to bill this match as being Germany's offense versus the U.S. defense. That's going a little too far considering the attacking prowess that has been shown by Abby Wambach, Mia Hamm and the rest of the U.S. attacking players in this tournament, but April Heinrichs doesn't seem to mind hearing such thoughts.
"I like that challenge," says the U.S. coach after her team finished Friday's training session on the pristine fields at the NIKE campus, "because they've scored some goals. And we've taken a lot of pride in trying to limit the amount of shots on frame that we allow."
Against Norway, that number was one, which might be the most impressive statistic to look at when going over the team's 1-0 victory on Wednesday night. It's unlikely to happen that way against Germany, though. Prinz and Meinert are very well-known entities to the U.S. players, as they played for the Carolina Courage and Boston Breakers, respectively, in the WUSA, and are regarded as two of the top players in the world.
Prinz, who leads all scorers in this tournament with six goals, is the out-and-out striker, and has the type of one-on-one ability to make something out of nothing. The Germans will play balls through to her, even if she has Fawcett or Kate Sobrero hanging all over her.
"She's very good with her back to pressure," says Fawcett of Prinz. "And she gets those shots off even when she has very little room. So we really got to have one or two people on her."
Feeding her many of those balls -- when not taking her own shots -- is Meinert, who was the Most Valuable Player of the WUSA last season. She has a lot of freedom within Germany's system, and is as likely to be starting the attack out of the midfield as she is to be seen running onto the ball behind the defense as the most forward player on her team.
"She's just really is an amazing player," says Sobrero, who knows her tendencies as well as anyone from being her teammate in Boston. "If you lay off her or forget about her for a second, she'll score."
As for information on the rest of the German squad, don't ask the U.S. players. Though many of them took the field against Germany in the four matches (3-0-1 in favor of the U.S.) they've had since the 3-2 victory in the quarterfinals of the 1999 World Cup, several of the Americans haven't seen their upcoming opponent play in this tournament. And none of them saw the Germans destroy Russia on Thursday night either in person or on television, as U.S. coach April Heinrichs doesn't allow for her players to watch their next opponent.
"They don't watch with an objectivity that a coach can bring," explains Heinrichs, who said that's been the National Team policy for 17 years.
Heinrichs doesn't want her players to be either too critical or too complimentary by doing their own scouting reports. Instead, she prefers to have her staff put together an edited package that'll provide footage of areas where coaching points can be made and analysis can be disseminated.
For this match, Heinrichs will certainly have clips that demonstrate how well the German side works together, especially in the attacking third.
"The Germans play tremendous combination play," she says. "I've always tried to take a chapter out of their book."
After playing against rough-and-tumble teams in two of the last four games -- Norway and Nigeria -- the U.S. faces an opponent that has a similar skill level, and plays a similar style.
"They'll keep the ball on the ground," says defender Kylie Bivens.
It will make for a much more attractive game than what was seen on Thursday night at Gillette Stadium.
"We both like to play a good, possession style," says Fawcett. "We'll complement each other."
The match could look a lot like the U.S.-Sweden game that was played at RFK Stadium 12 days ago, as both the Swedes and Germans play an organized defense, consisting of a flat-back four. Both are strong in the air, as well.
Besides being a deeper squad with more firepower, the Germans will spray the ball around the field much more than Sweden did. It should call for a similar lineup that was used in the first match, as well as the one from the other night against Norway.
Heinrichs said that her staff hasn't made any decisions yet, but it'd be a surprise if the back four didn't have Cat Reddick and Christie Pearce on the outside, with Fawcett and Sobrero in the middle. Sobrero has played equally on the outside in this tournament, but her knowledge of Meinert's game will likely keep her in the middle, in the same way it did against the Norwegians because of her familiarity with Dagny Mellgren.
The question is whether the U.S. will go with a four-man diamond midfield with Cindy Parlow at the point as it did against Norway or with a triangular-configured system with Kristine Lilly at the point in front of Shannon Boxx and Julie Foudy in back of three forwards as was seen against Sweden.
Heinrichs said she was happy with Parlow's play at such a position, particularly the way she was able get balls to Wambach with flick-on headers, which makes that option a definite possibility.
Germany has momentum, a certain angst from not having beaten the U.S. in nearly six years, and the luxury of not having to travel after its quarterfinal game.
But the U.S. has two decided advantages. For one, Germany will play without defender Steffi Jones, who tore a tendon in her right knee last weekend. Jones is one of Germany's top players, and would have been very instrumental in the containment of her Washington Freedom teammates, Hamm and Wambach.
The other advantage is the U.S. is battle-hardened.
Outside of their match against Canada in group play that was 1-1 in the second half before they rallied to post an impressive 4-1 victory, the Germans haven't played in a competitive match or against a skilled opponent. The U.S., on the other hand, had to play against three of the world's best teams in Norway, Sweden and North Korea, as well as take a beating from the physical Nigerians.
"I hope that our difficult road in the 'Group of Death' that we played, and the quality opponents that we've played, pays off for us," says Heinrichs, "because I think it has sharpened us, it's certainly challenged us, and it's made us a better team."
Marc Connolly covers soccer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at: email@example.com.