U.S. won't ease up against Aussies
THESSALONIKI, Greece -- One reason why the U.S. men aren't competing at these Olympics is because they didn't try to avoid host Mexico during the CONCACAF qualifying tournament in Guadalajara, Mexico on Feb. 7.
In its final first-round encounter, the U.S. played Honduras with a man down -- Jose Luis Burciaga was red-carded in the 29th minute with a 1-0 lead -- yet the Americans continued to push forward instead of playing more defensive en route to a 4-3 victory. A loss would have pit the Americans against Costa Rica (who would you rather take your chances with in Mexico - the Mexicans or the Central Americans?).
Instead, they took on the Mexicans and were pounded, 4-0.
Who knows? Perhaps they might have lost to Costa Rica anyway, because their backline, decimated by injuries, was shaky enough.
Let's fast forward to the women's Olympic soccer tournament on Aug. 16.
The U.S. women have an opportunity to lose their Tuesday game against Australia and avoid playing world champion Germany in the semifinals. The Germans stunned what once was an apparent powerhouse in China, 8-0, in their opener. They also downed the U.S. in the semifinals of last year's Women's World Cup, 3-0.
To avoid the Germans, the Americans would have to lose to the Aussies by more than two goals - which is highly unlikely.
Don't even consider the thought.
An American loss at this stage in the Olympics certainly would be more blatant and open many eyes, considering the U.S. has lost only once in three appearances in the Summer Games -- the 2000 gold-medal game -- and has never lost an opening-round match. The team is 6-0-2. It has never lost to Australia -- 15-0 -- while outscoring its foes from down under, 58-9. The Americans also have allowed the Aussies to score more than one goal once -- in a 4-2 U.S. triumph in 1995. The U.S. last defeated the Aussies on July 21, 3-1, in Blaine, Minn.
So, a semifinal confrontation with Germany in Heraklio on Monday, Aug. 23 looks more and more likely.
I don't see it happening and the likes of Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly, Julie Foudy and Joy Fawcett certainly have way too much pride to allow something like that occur.
Coach April Heinrichs isn't even considering the thought of playing around with the result.
"It's very difficult to manipulate the results or the placement," she said on Monday. "We don't try to do that ever ... So we just play to win and let the chips fall where they may. You don't want to try get into manipulation games. That's just dangerous thinking."
Heinrichs had other matters on her mind as she made her decision on which player will replace suspended striker Abby Wambach. And she wasn't telling - at least not the American or international media.
Heinrichs said she had four options - Cindy Parlow, Lindsay Tarpley, Heather O'Reilly, or veteran midfielder Kristine Lilly. They each bring something different to the table.
Parlow (147 international appearances, 69 goals) is a great target player. Tarpley (28/7) is a natural goal-scorer. O'Reilly (26/3) has speed to burn and can embarrass opposing defenders. Lilly (278/95) has great vision and experience.
"They have all proven themselves to be confident stepping on the field for the U.S.," Heinrichs said. "They have proven themselves to give us a lift. And they have proven themselves to deal with the speed physicality of the Olympics.
"All four of them give a different look. It depends on what you're want in that game, what your team needs or perhaps what the opponent poses in terms of problems."
I asked Heinrichs about the attributes of the four candidates:
"Kristine brings experience and composure and a good possessional quality to her game," she said. "Cindy Parlow is very good back to pressure, is very strong physically and is not bumped around and is obviously strong in the air. Lindsay Tarpley is one more difficult to pigeon-hole her qualities and I wouldn't want to pigeon-hole any of her qualities. She's the player who can play one of any six positions for us up front, and do it well. She's tactical and technical and at moments, she's got toughness as well. Heather O'Reilly gives us unbelievable speed and athleticism and quickness to get behind any team in the world."
The gut feeling is that it will be Parlow. Although she is a different player than Wambach, Parlow (5-11, 154 lbs.) virtually is the same size as Wambach (5-11, 161) and Heinrichs likes to have a big target player up front.
Personally, yours truly would prefer to see one of the youngsters -- Tarpley or O'Reilly -- get the nod to see them in action on one of international soccer's biggest stages.
Heinrichs won't rest any players -- she has five starters over 30 years of age -- but she hopes to use not to use the veterans for the full 90 and sub them when appropriate.
"You're still limited to a certain extent on how many players you can play and substitute," she said. "In general, our players expressed that they want the continuity from the Brazil game to our quarterfinal game.
"Some athletes do better with some time off, and other athletes do better when they go ahead, touch the ball and play their game."
Blatter and Mia: A chance encounter
It certainly was a sight that you don't see every day: The head of the sports governing body giving a kiss to the top international goalscorer on the planet.
After Mia Hamm completed an interview with reporters in the Hyatt Regency lobby on Monday afternoon, FIFA president Sepp Blatter planted a kiss on the cheek of U.S. international forward and then wished her well in the Olympic women's soccer tournament.
"I'll see you in the final," a smiling Blatter said.
To which Hamm replied: "We're going to try."
After Hamm wished Blatter a safe trip to Austria to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Austrian Football Federation, Blatter replied, "And you win and score goals."
In case you're curious, here's the complete transcript of the encounter:
Blatter: "I couldn't leave this country without ...
Hamm: "Hi! Good to see you"
Blatter: "I'll see you at the final."
Hamm: "We're going to try."
Blatter: "I have to go to Austria for the 100 year (celebration) of the Austria Football Federation. But I'll be back at the end of the week. I'm sure you'll still be in the competition."
Hamm: "We're going to do what we can. Thank you so much."
Blatter talked about the yellow card situation (please see the item below).
Hamm: "Have a safe trip."
Blatter: "And you win and score goals."
Hamm: "Thank you, Mr. Blatter. Thank you very much."
Blatter: No more yellow peril
U.S. defender Christie Rampone can rest assured. She won't have to worry about earning a second yellow card in Tuesday's third and final opening-round game vs. Australia will keep her out of the quarterfinals.
All yellow cards in the third game of Group G "will be nullified," according to Blatter, who brought up the controversial yellow card situation before the journalists could ask any questions.
"All the yellow cards will be nullified," he said. "They will not be brought forward."
Hamm then queried, "But if you have one in the first game and you get it in the third game . . . "
To which Blatter responded, "It's nullified. We will have a clean sheet in the quarterfinals unless somebody gets two yellow cards in the same match or a red card."
Because there are 10 teams in the women's tournament, the groups were divided into three groups of three, three and four. That means Group G, which includes the U.S., Greece, Brazil and Australia, had one extra game to earn a yellow card.
Two yellow cards mean an automatic suspension in the next game. Originally, if a player earned a second yellow in the third game, she would have had to miss the quarterfinals. That certainly would have put a team at a disadvantage.
Tuesday is the last day of the women's first-round competition. The quarterfinals are at four sites on Friday.
No more calendar girls
In 2000, Australia's women's Olympic team stirred quite a furor and controversy when they posed nude for a calendar that was sold to give the team more exposure and raise money. This year's squad hasn't done anything like that and has concentrated on playing soccer.
"We really tried to move on from the calendar," said midfielder Danielle Small, a San Diego State graduate who scored the lone goal in that July 21 encounter. "We were trying to raise our profile with that. Now, we're trying to get the headlines on what we do on the field."
No one considered a 2004 calendar.
"There had been offers to do other things, but we just really want to focus on the field, that sort of thing," Small said.
With Brazil (1-1-0, three points) taking on lowly Greece (0-2-0, 0), the Aussies need a victory to advance. Their goal differential is even, compared to minus one for the Brazilians.
"It's going to be a tough game," Small said. "We've got a battle on our hands."
And you can quote me
"They are going to come with the kitchen sink against us. Their front runner -- No. 7 (Sarah Walsh) -- is faster than fast, so we have to keep an eye on her. Australia has their backs up against it. They have three points and they know they can do well against us they can advance and it's important to them. We have to be ready from the first minute because they are going to come out swinging." -- U.S. goalkeeper Briana Scurry on Australia.
The last word
Attendance at the first four dates of the soccer competition has been horrible. It has been so bad that games might not top the one million barrier that Olympic and FIFA officials have come to expect to reach at recent Summer Games. "Tonight the fans were very good," Blatter said after Saturday's doubleheader here (the U.S. defeated Brazil in the opener, 2-0, while Mali blanked Greece in the second encounter, 2-0). "They showed the same respect to both teams. I believe that there will be more people attending the forthcoming games. However, there were 3,000 to 4,000 people at Patras for the game between Iraq and Portugal. That's not good for football. There should be more fans in the stadiums."
The U.S. will defeat Australia, 3-1, to clinch Group G. Hamm, Lilly and O'Reilly will score goals.
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