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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."

Chip shots

  • Striking numbers: No, I haven't forgotten about the strike rates of Wambach and Prinz. Wambach has scored at a rate of 71.4 percent (goals per game), while Prinz is at 64.5. Hamm, who has a world-record 153 goals in 264 appearances, including two in this competition, is at 57.9 percent. And in case you are wondering, Akers (she'll be inducted into the Hall of Fame in Oneonta in October) put them away at a 68.6 clip (105 goals in 153 appearances). But even those numbers can be deceiving if you consider Akers' prime, before ailments and a switch to holding and defensive midfielder later in her career. Through 1995, Akers had scored an amazing 85 goals in only 94 international matches for a 90.4 rate. That's almost a goal a game at the international level.

  • No replacements: In a rarity if not a first for the knockout round, the U.S. started and finished with the same 11 players in its 2-1 quarterfinal win over Japan on Friday. Wouldn't have been smart to rest one or two of the older players for Germany and get Hamm, who had a yellow card from that match, out of the lineup? "We hadn't secured the win," Heinrichs said. "The last corner kick of the game will say how close it was. The second part of it is we made a couple of changes before the game and that gave us needed rest. I think we started on the field with three or four fresh legs. The fact we had more energy than Japan is a validation of our residency program. We played on two days rest to Japan's five days rest. As said it to the team last night and they said, 'Geez, five days rest?' Are you kidding?' So in a lot of respects the 11 were playing well. The two corner kicks at the end of the game warrants not taking Abby Wambach out or one of our leaders."

  • Taking it up a notch: Heinrichs felt that Nigeria, which allowed two late goals in its 2-1 quarterfinal loss to Germany, is the most improved team in the world. They are better organized and still can be physical when needed. "They unsettled Germany at times with their physicality," she said. "They have player-for-player, more speed than Germany does in every positions. That's hard to play against. I'll tell you, I know exactly what it's like to play against the Germany team. We've done it in '99, 2000 and 2003. It's unsettling. It's hard to get goals against them. But sometimes you can get buckets of goals. You don't come out of the game feeling great. You come out of it feeling that that game is over. It's hard, very hard to play against Nigeria ... I think if the game was 70 minutes, Nigeria would be in the semifinals. That's why it's 90 minutes. It's fitness, maturity and experience. Nigeria had at one point only eight players on the field. They were winning and they were getting stretchered off the field. You don't get stretchered off the field when you're winning. Its antics that they do and it hurt them."

  • Moving forward: Plans for reviving the WUSA are still alive and kicking, according to commissioner Tony DiCicco, who has spearheaded the effort to keep the league afloat. The WUSA suspended operations on the eve of last year's WWC after three seasons. The next step is to take the business model to the potential owners to make a decision on how to run the league on a daily basis (which cities, player salaries, etc. etc.). DiCicco said he felt that "2005 as a full league season is not achievable. We have to put teams and front offices together. But in 2005 we can get teams together and play in festivals. They're doing their own branding and merchandising. Then we'll have a full league schedule in 2006." DiCicco's ideas make a lot of sense because it gives the teams to make inroads back into the soccer community. But the final decision isn't up to him, but rather the new leadership.

  • Gut feeling: If you're still with me, you get the dessert - my prediction in the final. It's a tough, one of the most difficult decisions I have had to make in my history of prognosticating. Despite their shellacking of China in the opener, the Germans might not be as invincible as some people think, needing two goals in the final 15 minutes to overcome a determined Nigerian side, 2-1. The Germans also are without a pair of veterans who have retired since the WWC - midfielders Maren Meinert and Bettina Wiegmann. They will be missed. The U.S. has been pointing to this game since Oct. 5. It has the fittest team in the competition and has a lot of motivation in winning it for the retiring players. After putting all the information into the Lewis Univac SuperDuper Computer, I have come out with this prediction: U.S. 2, Germany 1 on a late goal by Lilly as the team moves a step closer taking home the gold for the Fab Five.

    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