U.S., Germany in true clash of titans
First it was U.S.-Norway.
Then it was U.S.-China.
Now it's U.S.-Germany.
But unlike the first two rivalries that dominated women's soccer from the mid-80s through the beginning of this century, the U.S. Women's National Team finds itself in a major international tournament as the second banana, and even as underdogs going into Monday's Olympic semifinal.
Underdog. It's a word the U.S. side has never had attached to its name. Never. Not once.
Going into the team's 3-0 loss to Germany in the semifinal of the 2003 Women's World Cup, there were whispers that the Germans were the more complete side, and how Maren Meinert and Birgit Prinz proposed a greater attacking threat than any two Americans. But make no mistake about it: The U.S. was the favored side going into that fateful day on Oct. 5, playing in front of a partisan crowd in Portland, Oregon.
Almost a year later, it's a different story. Germany is the top-ranked side in the world, and has justified its position through its dominant play in Greece. Even though Meinert and Bettina Wiegmann -- a FIFA Women's World Cup All-Star last year -- rode off into the sunset and retired after beating Sweden in the World Cup final, Tina Theune-Meyer's squad hasn't missed a beat.
The Germans have outscored their opponents 12-1. More importantly, they showed the type of mettle they have when they erased a 1-0 deficit with two goals in a span of five minutes late in the match to defeat a pesky Nigeria side in the quarterfinals on Friday.
In short, Germany has proved to be worthy World Cup champions, and will walk onto the field at Heraklio Stadium on the island of Crete as the favorites to not only beat the United States, but to win its second straight world championship.
"You have to give the respect that Germany has earned," said striker Mia Hamm. "They are the defending world champions and they are the best team in the world. They've proven that to us in last year's World Cup and that's the way we are going to approach the game, is that we respect them that much."
That respect didn't just happen overnight, either. The German side has always been one of the elite sides in women's soccer, going all the way back to when current U.S. coach April Heinrichs scored two goals to beat the Germans in the semifinals of the 1991 Women's World Cup while playing for Anson Dorrance's side that ultimately won the first world title in women's soccer.
"Germany is one of the top teams in the world and we've felt that way since 1991," said Heinrichs. "We felt that way in the 1995 Women's World Cup when they were runners-up to Norway, in 1999 when our paths crossed in the quarterfinals, and in 2000 when they had a phenomenal string of games and probably should have been in the final were it not for the unfortunate nature of soccer sometimes. In 2003, they win the World Cup, so they are unequivocally one of the top three or four teams in world over the 18-20 year history of women's soccer on the international stage."
So the respect is there. As is the motivation for both sides. For Germany, it's proving to everyone all over the world that last fall's victory wasn't a fluke and that they can win without Meinert and Wiegmann. For the U.S., it's all about gaining back the moniker as the top team in the world, and showing that they've learned from last year's game.
If the Americans do fix what went wrong at PGE Park, then their attack will look much different. That means getting down the wing and serving in the same type of cross nearly every time only to see it get snatched up by German goalkeeper Silke Rottenberg will be a thing of the past. Co-captain Julie Foudy seems to think so.
"One of the things we've talked about a lot is that whenever we got end line against them last time, whatever we were serving, Rottenberg was grabbing," she said. "So we have to pull that service back."
Or come at them in different ways. Playing with Hamm, Cindy Parlow and Abby Wambach up front last time obviously created some matchup problems for the Germans, as it would any team in the world. However, the midfielders failed to deliver the ball at the right times, and spring them in creative ways.
Although Aly Wagner and Tiffeny Milbrett came on in the second half and helped change the look of the team, the Germans were already up by a goal and were riding a wave of confidence in the second half.
This time around, the U.S. will need either Wagner or perhaps 20-year-old Lindsay Tarpley to organize out of the midfield and combine with the strikers.
When the U.S. moves the ball quickly and stays organized in its 4-4-2 or 4-4-3 set, it is hard to defend. It's only when they start relying on Wambach's ferocity in the air to win serves or long through balls to space for Hamm to run onto that they run into trouble and become predictable.
The lineup that would appear to be best-suited to play against the Germans would include Brandi Chastain, who has only played in one of four matches in this tournament, as the left back in a 4-3-3 formation.
The attack element she brings out of the back was missed against Germany last year, and would force Germany's right midfielder Kerstin Garefrekes and her overlapping partner at right back, Kerstin Stegemann, to stay home a bit more and help stifle their chances to get forward.
It would also mean that Kate Markgraf will be in the center of the defense, where her tenacity on tackles, strength in the air and speed will help against high-scoring German strikers.
The 4-3-3 that features two holding midfielders behind an attacking midfielder without flank players would also allow Kristine Lilly to move into the forward line on the left side, where she played a strong match against Japan on Friday. The more scoring chances become limited, the more Lilly's hard and accurate shots within 20 yards increase in importance.
The main concern for the U.S. as far as defensive measures go is how to defend Prinz, who is no secret to the American players having played against her in the WUSA for three years.
Last year's FIFA Women's World Player of the Year has scored 77 goals in 119 appearances for Germany, with five strikes coming in Greece over three matches. On the field, she appears larger than her listed 5-foot-10, in the same way that Wambach does for her listed 5-foot-11 height. To go along with her size and power, Prinz has speed on the dribble and a nose for when and when not to attack the goal.
Said U.S. holding midfielder Shannon Boxx: "Birgit is an amazing player. She is strong and a great finisher … For being so tall and big, she's a fast player, but we have great defenders who are all fast and all can handle her strength, so we'll definitely have to play her tight and try to limit her space."
Boxx also pointed out that Prinz is one of many dangerous players for Germany, which is very true. In this tournament, they've had seven different players score goals including 5-foot-11 midfielder and former Washington Freedom standout Steffi Jones, who scored the all-important tying goal against Nigeria, and midfielder Renate Lingor.
U.S.-Germany is the type of matchup that should be saved for a final match, not a semifinal. Yet, no matter when the replay of last fall's World Cup semifinal was going to happen, it was going to be a can't-miss event, which will surely showcase women's soccer played at the highest possible level.
"It will be a match-up of some beautiful soccer," said Heinrichs. "The last time we played was the semifinals of the (2003) World Cup and I feel to this day that it was one of the greatest games ever played in the women's game.
"So it will meet all expectations."
Just as U.S.-Norway and U.S.-China always seemed to do.
Marc Connolly covers American soccer for ESPN Soccernet.com. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org