Ascent back to top goes through Brazil
If the U.S. Women's National Team is to win its second Gold Medal on Thursday, it will have deserved it wholeheartedly.
Talk about a tough schedule. First, the Americans were forced to play three round-robin matches, while the other top teams such as Germany, Sweden and China only had to play two. Playing the host country, Greece, wasn't exactly an easy task to start the tournament, either.
With a dangerous Brazil squad -- who plays a style all its own -- in Group G, it made for some nervous moments earlier in the tournament, as well.
Despite coming out on top with a 2-0 victory over the Brazilians way back on Aug. 14 in Thessaloniki, the U.S. was outplayed for long stretches of the match, and was lucky to get out of there without a tie or a loss.
Once the Yanks reached the knockout round, it didn't get easier. Japan was a worthy opponent in the quarterfinals and held up well in a 2-1 loss to the U.S., but the real problem was the roadblock that existed in the semifinals with reigning World Cup champion Germany standing in the way.
While it was laughable that the two top-ranked teams were put on the same side of the draw, it was a game that had to be played nonetheless, whether it was for the Gold or not.
In a performance that saw the U.S. redeem itself not only for its 3-0 semifinal loss to the Germans last fall, but also for its uneven play throughout the tournament, the Americans carried play throughout the match and got a deserved 2-1 result in overtime.
It was a match that displayed the grit and experience of each of the '91ers - Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain, Julie Foudy, Joy Fawcett and Kristine Lilly.
The game also saw the exciting play of the stars of the future through the performances turned in by conquering hero Heather O'Reilly, Lindsay Tarpley and Abby Wambach, whose role in both of the team's goals was overlooked in the heroics of the Hamm-to-O'Reilly "passing the torch" goal for the ages.
What does the U.S. get for its troubles? A rematch against the one team that truly made them look bad for a full 45 minutes during this tournament. A team that plays with style and flair -- much like its men's side -- yet has a physical element and a competitive nature much like that of the Americans.
When Brazil is "on," it's a side that can make an opponent look like it is simply chasing the ball and playing a player or two down.
Hamm said it best after the first match:
"They are unbelievable on the ball and they are some of the most exciting players in the world to watch and some of the most frustrating to play against," said the world's all-time goal-scoring leader, "because they can make you look like you've never played soccer before."
Marta, an 18-year-old wunderkind, is a player who can do that. When the ball is on her left foot, it is simply on a string, doing whatever she wants with it. She's as adept in finding her teammates with a quick, penetrating pass, as she is knifing through entire defenses by herself, making it look effortless, as though it's a training exercise.
"I know Marta is going to make an impact in the midfield against whatever team she plays," said Wambach, a student of the world game.
That's not all Brazil has by a long shot, either. Gone are the days when it was Sissi and the Pips.
The current side features a speedy striker up top in 19-year-old Cristiane, who leads Brazil with five goals in this tournament and will once again be a handful for Fawcett and Kate Markgraf to cover.
There are also creative players around her such as Formiga, ye of the back-heel pass that sprung teammate Rosana behind the U.S. during the first half of their last match, and partner-in-crime Elaine.
Defensively, left back Monica had a strong game against the U.S., as did central defender Juliana, who organizes the team out of the back and doesn't appear to be intimidated by the imposing U.S. frontline.
For Brazil, the game plan will surely be to get a body on Wambach whenever possible, which will be a tough task that will fall on Monica's shoulders.
On Aug. 14, she did a nice job containing the powerful 5-foot-11 forward, and even seemed to frustrate her with her physical play. However, she could have easily received two or three yellow cards for her hard tackles, rather than the one she did happen to receive. How close the calls are monitored will definitely be a factor in this match.
"I put all my faith in FIFA to assign the best referee to the game," said Heinrichs on Wednesday. "FIFA is heavily invested in making sure the Olympic final is well played and well refereed and that they let the attacking personalities play and display their talent."
To break down this defense, Heinrichs needs to stress the importance of building an attack, especially up the left flank with Lilly, as long balls in search of Wambach's forehead did not work the last time around.
The U.S. needs to be patient and try and spring Wambach with the ball on the ground, which finally paid off in the 82nd minute of the last meeting when last year's WUSA Founder's Cup MVP ran on to a flicking header by Tarpley and proceeded to sneak in between Monica and Juliana before slamming home a hard left-footed shot to seal the victory.
The U.S. must also play with that competitive fire and edge that came out in the second half of the Brazil match. It was that type of effort that not only wore the Brazilians down, but had them complaining to the officials that the Americans were playing dirty.
They need to intimidate in the same sort of manner through their aggressive play to send a message early, as well as exude the confidence of a team playing in its fifth world championship against one that is playing in its biggest match of all time.
Heinrichs, for one, is sure that her side will play with that sort of mindset.
"I am not sure I can get into their minds and say what their mindset is, but if I was going to guess I would say determined and strong," said the U.S. head coach. "They have been getting stronger as the tournament went along. They are displaying a powerful belief in themselves and each other."
The lineup that the U.S. will trot out there will surely look different than the one the Brazilian side faced two weeks ago. For one, Foudy is a game-time decision after spraining her ankle against Germany. Her X-ray on Tuesday was negative, and she got off crutches on Wednesday.
"It's hard to tell right now," said Heinrichs. "She's walking and she's encouraged and optimistic, just like she is as a person and should be as an athlete who wants to play in this game. So we'll make the call tomorrow much closer to the game."
Assuming the U.S. co-captain is not ready to start and is relegated to second-half action off the bench, Heinrichs could play both Tarpley and Aly Wagner at the same time, with Wagner as the attacking midfielder and Tarpley in Foudy's usual role as the right midfielder.
Giving the nod to O'Reilly isn't out of the question, as well, which would force the U.S. to play a 4-3-3 or push Hamm back into the midfield.
Chastain, who did not play against Brazil last time, is expected to start as the left back again, where she has played well over the last two matches. That would mean that Markgraf and Fawcett would be paired in the middle with Christie Rampone on their right once again.
The U.S. had success against Brazil when it went to a 4-3-3, which might be tempting for Heinrichs to use. If that's the case, Lilly will be the player Brazil has to mark closer than it did in the second half on Aug. 14.
After all the stories have been written, violins played and pictures taken chronicling the end of an era with this team considering the impending retirement of Hamm, Foudy and Fawcett after the tournament, it is fitting that the Americans find themselves in another world championship final.
It's a place they feel at ease, where they've won more than lost. Coming off devastating losses in the 2000 Olympics to Norway and in the World Cup semifinal to Germany last fall, they are inspired once again to stand at the top of the mountain as they did on that steaming July afternoon in the Rose Bowl in 1999 having beat China to win their second Women's World Cup.
"They have a dogged determination," said Heinrichs, "to stand at the end of the game tomorrow night with a gold medal around their neck."
Marc Connolly covers American soccer for ESPN Soccernet.com. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org