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Sep 29, 2006

Markgraf's return a boon to U.S. back line

There will be plenty of youth on display in Los Angeles this weekend, with Sunday's international friendly between the United States and Chinese Taipei (4 p.m. ET, ESPN) at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif., serving as the finale of the inaugural Women's Nike Friendlies. The four-day event, staged jointly by U.S. Soccer and Nike, encompasses 42 matches featuring youth club teams, a regional Olympic Development Program team and three youth national teams (under-16, under-17 and under-18). Even Chinese Taipei's national team, with an average age of just over 21, will add to the weekend's youthful flavor. At first glance, it all seems like an odd setting for veteran defender Kate Markgraf to make her return to the national team. Markgraf, 30, has 146 caps for the United States, a stretch of appearances that dates back to 1998 and includes just 10 losses. Among players on the roster for Sunday's game, only Kristine Lilly (311), Briana Scurry (156) and Christie Rampone (148) have made more appearances for the national team. But after training with the team as a non-roster player in Rochester before a game against Mexico on Sept. 13, Markgraf is back on coach Greg Ryan's roster and looking for her first appearance since 2005. And when you think about it, maybe a weekend celebrating the energy of youth and the future of the game is actually a perfect backdrop for her return. Keegan Jamison Markgraf was responsible for Markgraf missing the first 14 games this year, even if he wasn't around until July 18. But since giving birth to her first child, Markgraf has been working on her return to the field, spending time training and serving as a special assistant coach for the Harvard women's team (first-year Harvard coach Erica Walsh is also the coach of the U-17 women's national team). If Markgraf does assume her old spot in the center of the defense, it's entirely possible that she could be in a back line with Rampone and Tina Frimpong that includes three moms (although Frimpong has played sparingly in the last two games after a midsummer injury). It would be a group that gives a whole new meaning to replacing the contributions of former defensive mainstay (and mother of three) Joy Fawcett. But it's not just a new son that makes Markgraf an ideal fit for a weekend that is all about youth. The least-experienced regular on the 1999 World Cup team (she started five games despite suffering an ankle injury early in the tournament), Markgraf should be an important steadying influence on a national team still incorporating many new faces. That influence will be especially useful for a defense still in transition following the departures of Fawcett and Brandi Chastain in 2004 and -- in some ways -- Carla Overbeck before them. Cat Whitehill, who figures to start alongside Markgraf in the center of the defense in China next summer, will miss her second game in a row while being cautious with a left foot injury. And while Rampone has plenty of experience, and Heather Mitts has somewhat quietly picked up 50 of her 55 caps since 2004, the rest of the defense enters Sunday's game with a total of 64 caps from Amy LePeilbet, Lori Chalupny, Frimpong, Stephanie Lopez and Keeley Dowling. It's a group loaded with talent but still finding roles on this team. And depending on how much Markgraf plays in her first game, Sunday could provide another opportunity for some of the young faces to impress Ryan. During practice in Rochester two weeks ago, assistant coach Bret Hall could be heard on the far end of the field, and quite possibly throughout downtown Rochester, vocally imploring the defenders to communicate and speak up. Hall's decibel-raising demonstrations earned a few smirks from veterans working in another drill on the other end of the field, but the instructions still hinted at a group still finding a comfort zone on the field. That game produced one goal against the United States, on a miscommunication between keeper Hope Solo and LePeilbet, and relatively few dangerous forays from Mexico, but Ryan was immensely pleased with the overall play of the back line. Especially of note was the versatility of both Rampone and Mitts, who played both outside and inside during the course of the 90 minutes. Those moves also allowed Lopez to get on the field in the second half, and the 20-year-old captain of the U-20 national team that recently competed at the World Championships in Russia acquitted herself well. Lopez is one of three college players, along with University of Portland teammate Megan Rapinoe and UCLA forward Danesha Adams, on the roster for Sunday's game, but it's not hard to imagine she is the one with the best shot of making an impact on Ryan's short-term plans. Chalupny has also been impressive at times in pressing forward from her outside back position, while Mitts has been among the team's steadiest performers throughout the summer, so it will be up to Ryan to find extended minutes for Lopez Sunday. Before the game in Rochester, Ryan talked about the good working relationship he has with college officials like Bill Irwin, Portland's director of soccer, when it comes to calling up active college players, and it will be interesting to see if the U.S. coach again calls on Lopez for the Oct. 8 game in Richmond, Va., against Iceland. If not, Sunday may be his best opportunity to see Lopez under game conditions before the United States heads to South Korea for the Peace Cup in late October. The only problem with Sunday serving as a showcase for the defense is that Chinese Taipei may not give them much opportunity to do more than some light jogging. Once a world power --- it beat the United States 2-1 on Dec. 20, 1987, in the first game played between the nations -- Chinese Taipei has fallen on leaner times. It did not qualify for next summer's World Cup during this summer's qualifying tournament in Australia, a performance that included an 11-1 loss against Japan and a 1-0 loss against also-ran Vietnam. At the very least, it may test the United States' ability to spot weaknesses on the fly; the nations haven't played since a 9-0 win for the United States in 1995. Up front, the United States will again be without Heather O'Reilly, who injured her ankle before the Mexico game and is not on the roster for this game (she has returned to the field for the University of North Carolina and earned recent NSCAA Player of the Week honors). Without O'Reilly, Lindsay Tarpley should have another chance to run with Lilly and Abby Wambach. Tarpley scored a goal and played well against Mexico and is looking to stay ahead of Natasha Kai when Ryan looks for an option after Wambach, Lilly and O'Reilly.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's soccer coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com