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Nov 27, 2006

Reisdency gives U.S. women the edge

CARSON, Calif. -- Even in late November, when the temperatures tumble all the way from idyllic to merely pleasant and precipitation occasionally slips out of the sky, Southern California isn't a bad place to call home if you're a soccer player and someone else is paying the rent. And for six months this year, the manicured fields around the Home Depot Center in Carson were home to residency camp for the United States women's national team.

The team's year officially ended with the 2-1 win against Canada in the final of the Gold Cup on Sunday, allowing players to scatter back across the country for a few weeks of well-deserved rest before returning in time to prepare for the Four Nations Cup in China in January. But the work that went on in Carson throughout the year, while far from glamorous, may pay more long-term dividends than the wins piled up en route to an 18-0-4 record this year and titles in the Gold Cup, Four Nations Cup and Peace Queen Cup.

"It's a huge advantage, because we train like a club team would in Europe or whatever, where we're with our team all the time and we can really fine-tune those things," coach Greg Ryan said of the permanent base in Carson.

This year's program was the sixth for the United States but the first in a year that didn't include either a World Cup or Olympic tournament.

Ryan said residency this year was geared mostly toward developing on-field chemistry and figuring out where the different parts best fit together, but with his core group intact, the focus when residency resumes in the spring will be on perfecting technical details in time for the World Cup in China in September.

"To be honest, we have not worked that much on set plays up to this date," Ryan said. "Not nearly the level of emphasis that we're going to place on it next year."

In Sunday's final, the first goal for the United States was set up by a strong free kick from Cat Whitehill that Canadian keeper Erin McLeod was unable to completely clear, allowing Leslie Osborne to shoot into an open net. But overall, the United States generated few solid scoring chances off seven corners and numerous free kicks in a physical game.

"I think residency helps with the details, and set plays are a huge detail that a lot of people might overlook," defender Cat Reddick said. "And with this team, with its height and with its talent, we should make sure to hone in our set plays, because I think they can be lethal every time we try them. And with a residency, you come in early, stay late and you work on them."

Putting in extra practice time may not sound like much, but it's a luxury for the United States. For European teams, domestic leagues cut into the time the national team can spend together. And while the return of a professional league in the United States is important for the long-term growth of the sport and the national team, the short-term reality is that no team spends more time together than the U.S. squad.

As a result, the United States not only has more time to work on execution for things like set plays, it has the opportunity to do it against the best competition available: itself.

"The best way to get a game-like situation is against this team," Reddick said. "And if we do a lot of corner kicks once a month, we're not going to get any better. But if you do them at least one a week, we'll be reading each other, the corner kicks will be better, they'll get them to where they want them to. If everybody is marking Abby [Wambach], we have another back-post runner, we have a near-post runner. On the free kicks, just in general, for outside the box and for me from long distance, I want to get a long driven ball in there, but if I only practice them once in awhile, I'm not going to get it right."

During the World Cup in 2003, it sometimes felt like the United States could only score off set pieces, the offense during the run of play having stagnated a little. That's no longer the case, as players have been given more freedom under Ryan to be creative and use their skills, but success on set pieces remains critical.

"I think this team can be very strong in terms of set pieces," Ryan said, listing Natasha Kai, Leslie Osborne, Wambach and Reddick as ideal targets in the box and Kristine Lilly, Aly Wagner and Reddick as ideal servers. "I think we're at about 25 percent right now of what we can be."

Good weather and its strategic value aside, residency can be a strain on players. Three players on the roster for the Gold Cup are mothers (Christie Rampone, Tina Frimpong and Kate Markgraf) and numerous others have husbands or significant others who must either uproot their lives and follow the players to California or cope with long-distance relationships. While that's the same kind of decision many young people face in weighing jobs and families, most contemplate it in professions with better pay and career options that extend past the age of 35.

"We've moved out here, because we know we'll be in residency for the next few years," said Rampone, 31, of the decision she and husband Chris made to relocate from New Jersey. "And it's just easier for him to come out, and start a life here until I'm done with my career and then we'll probably move back."

Individual challenges aside, in the quest to bring the World Cup title home to the United States, establishing a home for the team in Carson may prove to be the most important move of all.

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