Deciding factors for U.S. women
The obvious goal of the U.S. Women's Olympic Team is a victory lap around Karaiskaki Stadium in suburban Athens on Aug. 26. That means the players will be running around with gold medals around their necks.
But before the American women can celebrate, they must kick off the entire Olympics against host Greece on Wednesday and answer 11 vital questions.
If they can answer yes to most, if not all of these queries, then the U.S. could become the first women's team to win a pair of gold medals.
1. Can Mia Hamm still be a dominant force, especially when it comes in the later rounds?
Like it or not, historically, Hamm hasn't played up to her hype and reputation as the world's leading women's goal-scorer (151). In 31 Olympic and Women's World Cup matches, she has 11 goals, a decent ratio. However, in games beyond the first round, she has only two goals in 16 games (one in a third-place win over China in 1995 and another in a 2-0 semifinal victory over Brazil in 2000). In last year's WWC, Hamm turned playmaker, setting up five goals in as many games while scoring twice (but none in three knockout-round encounters). Coach April Heinrichs sat her down in the final first-round game, a 3-0 victory over North Korea, much to the chagrin of the Columbus, Ohio fans who came out to see her. Whether that was the reason, Hamm was hardly a factor the rest of the way. As Hamm has said that this will be her final major competition, she would love to go out on top with a gold medal. Can she take it up a notch?
2. Has coach April Heinrichs learned from her mistakes of the past two major competitions?
In 2000, the U.S. coach virtually ignored her bench and those dubious tactics came back to haunt the Americans in the gold-medal match loss to Norway. Ironically, the winning goal was scored by a substitute - Dagny Mellgren, who connected for a Golden Goal. In 2003, Heinrich's insistence of using a team that averaged almost 30 years a later cost the team in the late run. And in the 3-0 semifinal defeat to Germany, Heinrichs never used a third substitute, when one was called for as the U.S. desperately tried to equalize from a 1-0 deficit late in the match. Heinrichs cannot afford to make major mistakes again.
3. Can the U.S. overcome Germany in the semifinals?
Assuming the U.S. and Germany both win their first-round groups and in the quarterfinals, they will meet in the semis again. Yes, the Germans will play without the best player in the world in Maren Meinert, who decided to get on with her life at the age of 30 (too bad, because she demonstrated there was plenty of life left in her talented feet). Still, with WWC MVP Birgit Prinz in her prime and a solid supporting cast, the Germans still should be a formidable side, especially playing on their home continent. The United States' WWC championship hopes were thwarted by the marvelous performance of goalkeeper Silke Rottenberg in the 3-0 semifinal loss. The U.S. feels Rottenberg couldn't have another stellar performance. Or could she?
4. Can the U.S. survive and even thrive without the University of Portland connection?
For varying reasons, the Americans will be without either Shannon MacMillan or Tiffeny Milbrett for the first time since the 1991 WWC. Milbrett sounded off on April Heinrich's coaching in an interview earlier this year, squashing any hopes of being on the Olympic team and quite possibly her National Team career as well (at 99 goals!). The Americans will miss Milbrett's ability to score vital goals in big games. In fact, Milbrett scored in back-to-back gold-medal matches, the game-winner vs. China in 1996 and the equalizer in the dying seconds of injury time vs. Norway in 2000. MacMillan, rushed back for last year's WWC, is an alternate. She was one of the stars of the 1996 Olympic gold-medal run, striking for the game-winner in the semifinal win over Norway and once in the gold-medal match. Without those two skilled players who like to play the ball on the ground, the U.S. has been transformed into a team that relies on set pieces and one that likes to bang the ball to the twin towers -- Abby Wambach and Cindy Parlow. There's nothing wrong with an occasional long ball. But when a team comes to close to becoming one dimensional, it could become quite predictable Translated: The team's attack is easier to stop.
5. Can the Over-30 connection overcome the fatigue factor in the later rounds?
The U.S. has six players over 30, the most of any of the 10 teams. They still can play this game and bring a ton of experience to the table, but performing in so many games over the short haul (six in 16 days) could very well take its toll when it really counts in the medal round. A lot will depend on how these players rest on off days and how they are rested during games. For the record, the six are goalkeeper Briana Scurry (32), defenders Joy Fawcett (36) and Brandi Chastain (36), midfielders Kristine Lilly (33) and Julie Foudy (32) and forward Hamm (32). MacMillan, an alternate, is 30.
6. Can Heather O'Reilly make an impact as a 19-year-old substitute or perhaps a part-time starter?
Touted as the next great American scoring threat as the possible successor to Mia Hamm, O'Reilly enters her first big international tournament. She'll start on the bench and most likely will be the United States' first attacking option off of it. Will there be any pressure on her to produce? Can she overcome the pressure and be a viable option as the tournament proceeds? Or better yet, can she be so impressive early on that she breaks into the starting lineup in the knockout round?
7. Can Scurry produce a big save in the knockout rounds?
This is not to disparage Scurry at all because she is arguably the best women's goalkeeper in the world (Rottenberg's supporters in Germany might give you an argument or two over that). But can Scurry make a big save when the marbles are on the line against the likes of Germany or Sweden in the medal round? By the way, probably Scurry's best known save was against China in the 1999 penalty kick tie-breaker that decided the WWC.
8. Can the U.S. score consistently on other than set plays?
Once upon a time, all the U.S. could not buy a free-kick goal for years. Now, they live off (and sometimes die with) free kicks and corner kicks and occasional penalty kicks. While many teams have won championships taking advantage of dead-ball situations, they still have to score from the flow of play once in a while. The Americans must find a way to score the old fashioned way or face a potential disappointing finish.
9. Can Aly Wagner live up to her hype?
She was supposed to be the best playmaker in American women's soccer history, the creative midfield force the National Team had been waiting for for years. But Wagner was a disappointment at the WWC, playing in only 195 minutes over four games after a so-so rookie season with San Diego Spirit in the Women's United Soccer Association. She looked slow. That's not good enough against the Germanys and Swedens of the world. Perhaps getting traded from San Diego to the Boston Breakers right before the tournament had something to do with that (although the WUSA suspended operations for 2004 on the eve of the event). It certainly couldn't have helped her emotional state.
10. Can Shannon Boxx and Abby Wambach continue their breakthrough performances from USA 2003 and perhaps even improve on it?
These two women elicited comparisons to Michelle Akers, Wambach as a force to be reckoned with up front and Boxx as a defensive midfielder. While neither has come close to repeating what Akers has accomplished, they have acquitted themselves well. As well as they played last September and October at the WWC, we could not help but notice some weaknesses in their respective games. Boxx lost the ball way too many times in the midfield in the semifinal defeat to Germany when she should have been winning them. As dominant as the bruising Wambach was in the air, the U.S. might have relied on the air game a little too much, taking away from the striker's ground game and leaving it suspect. Incidentally, the U.S. has not won an Olympics or WWC since Akers retired just before the 2000 Summer Games.
11. Can the U.S. win a major tournament on foreign soil?
The last and only time the American women accomplished that feat was in 1991 at the very first Women's World Cup in China. Since then, the United States' championship quest has ended in disappointment and in frustration, finishing third in Sweden in the 1995 WWC and settling for a silver medal in Sydney in 2000. While most National Teams might be happy with such results, it falls short of the high (gold) standard the U.S. has set for itself. By the way, the U.S. won two of the three championships at home -- the 1996 Olympic gold medal and the 1999 world championship.
Michael Lewis, soccer columnist for the New York Daily News, will provide commentary about the U.S. women's Olympic team and other soccer matches at the Summer Games in Athens for ESPN.com. He is the only journalist to have covered 21 of 22 U.S. Women's National Team games in the last two Olympics (1996 and 2000) and Women's World Cup (1999 and 2003). He can be reached at SoccerWriter516@aol.com