Wambach, Prinz poised to strike
AGIA PELAGIA, Greece -- Well, we've gotten what we wanted and hoped for -- the U.S. vs. Germany in the women's Olympic soccer semifinals.
Let's hope the match will live up to its expectations and hype of last year's encounter - a 3-0 German triumph in the semifinals of the Women's World Cup.
Many soccer observers, including yours truly, believe that this match could very well determine the gold medalist. Due to the luck of the draw and team's first-round finishes, sometimes the best confrontations are settled before the final.
That was the case last year and that appears to be the case this time around.
The most intriguing matchup on Monday will be between a pair of talented strikers who can have that proverbial lousy match and then decide matters with one swipe of the ball - the United States' Abby Wambach and Germany's Birgit Prinz.
In many ways, they have similar qualities. They have combined athleticism, speed and physical strength into becoming scoring machines.
Both are in their prime, although Prinz, who turns 27 on Oct. 25, has much more international experience, having made her National Team debut as a 16-year-old. Wambach, who seems much younger, is 24. She debuted with the U.S. as a 21-year-old in a 4-1 win over Germany in Chicago on Sept. 9, 2001 (that's ancient if you consider Mia Hamm and Kristine Lilly were 16 when they put on the USA jersey for the first time), getting an opportunity mainly due to her development in the old Women's United Soccer Association.
They rarely will meet up except on dead ball situations such as corner kicks (when one is defending in the box) or on free kicks (when one is in the defensive wall).
Yet, both can leave their mark on the game. In fact, both women have greater strike rates than Mia Hamm.
In one penalty area stands the 5-10, 169-pound Prinz, the veteran of three Women's World Cups and three Olympics. She has scored 78 goals in only 121 matches, five shy of the German record of 83, set by Heidi Mohr (retired in 1996).
She also won both the Golden Ball and Boot as the MVP and leading scorer (seven goals, plus five assists) at the 2003 WWC. Prinz has tallied a women's record five goals in three matches in these Summer Games, including four in the 8-0 rout of China.
The 2003 FIFA Women's Player of the Year, Prinz also is the first women to register an Olympic hat trick and is the women's top career scorer with nine goals.
In other box stands the 5-11, 161-pound Wambach, a veteran of the 2003 WWC and these Summer Games. She has scored 30 goals in 42 international games, including 18 of her past 19 matches. Wambach has scored a goal in each of the three Olympics games she has played, missing the 1-1 draw with Australia due to a yellow-card suspension, and has become the most imposing American force up front.
They both bring similar qualities to the pitch.
Prinz is a determined forward who demands as much from his teammates as she does from herself. During a first-round game in the 2000 Sydney Games, she stared down a teammate when she did not have the vision to pass Prinz the ball on a two-on-one break. The teammate missed her mark by a long ways.
"She's deceptively fast," Hamm said. "She's strong. She's just a goalscorer. She's confident in herself. You have to be as a forward because a majority of the time you're failing at what you're supposed to do. You have to be able to be strong enough to get over it and find a way to help your team win. You might get 10 chances and one of them goes in. She's got a nose for the goal. She fights for the ball. She can take you on 1 v 1 or she can get behind you. If she does get inside of you it's very hard to defend after that."
So, how do you stop or contain Prinz?
"Deny her the ball as often as possible," U.S. coach April Heinrichs said. "Don't let her turn. And she's most dangerous when she's running at the ball facing you. And then put pressure on the ball so they can't get her the ball very often."
Wambach prides herself on never giving up. Like another tall American striker in the past, Michelle Akers, she has little regard for her well being if it means a goal for her team. As well as she has played, my gut feeling is that the Rochester, N.Y. native is just coming into her own, that her best performances and production are in front of her at the 2007 Women's World Cup in China and the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
"She's playing incredibly well," Hamm said. "Abby - she plays with so much pride. She wants to go out and make a difference every time she steps on the field. When Abby plays, it's not about her, it's about the team. You can tell how much she cares for the team on how hard she plays. She'll run through every ball. She'll try to take three players on.
"She just wants to win. You love having a player like that on your team. She's a winner. She exudes that confidence and belief in the entire team. She gets people going. We're not alike at all in the locker room before games. She has made a huge difference on this National Team and she'll continue to make a huge difference. She's been a real inspiration to us in the locker room and on the field."
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