U.S. ready to face Germany
GUANGZHOU, China -- The American and German women are getting keyed up.
That means only one thing: This year's World Cup in China is approaching fast.
Top-ranked Germany faces No. 2 United States in the Four Nations soccer tournament on Friday, a World Cup tuneup that also features ninth-ranked China and No. 12 England. Those two also play on the event's first day, with the round-robin tournament continuing Sunday and Tuesday at Guangzhou's 80,000-seat Olympic Stadium.
A half-dozen stars are missing on both teams, which gives young players time to prove themselves. It also offers everyone a quick glimpse of China, particularly the booming south with its palm trees and California-like climate.
This tournament and the 16-team World Cup in September are a couple of the dozens of events in China this year, designed to show the country's readiness for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
"It's a great opportunity for us to get used to the customs here, the food, the time change and the pitch we are playing on," said defender Cat Whitehill, who will be playing in her 100th game for the United States.
American coach Greg Ryan will be experimenting with his lineup.
Only six players in China were on the 2004 Olympic gold-medal team. And five probable starters are missing, left behind to rest or nurse injuries.
Top forwards Kristine Lilly and Abby Wambach are being rested, with defender Christie Rampone and midfielder Aly Wagner also getting a break.
The other key absence is midfielder Shannon Boxx, who is recovering from knee surgery.
Ryan has three big tasks: Find a third forward to go with Lilly and Wambach, unearth some goals from midfield, and watch his top two goalkeepers -- Briana Scurry and Hope Solo -- battle for the No. 1 berth.
The list at No. 3 forward is long, including Heather O'Reilly, Natasha Kai, Lindsay Tarpley, Lauren Cheney and Casey Nogueira. At midfield, Ryan will look to winger/defender Lori Chalupny to add to the attack from central midfield. Leslie Osborne, filling in for Boxx, also could provide a threat.
"We need to establish a third goal-scoring striker to go alongside Abby and Lilly," Ryan said. "That's critical for us if we want to be successful in September. Teams are going to find a way to shut us down on a given day. You've got to have a third option."
With Lilly missing, the U.S. will be captained by defender Kate Markgraf, one of two mothers on this roster.
Ryan has a streak on the line.
Since taking over almost two years ago, he is unbeaten in 31 games -- 26 wins and five draws -- when they were decided in regulation time. The only blemish came last year against Germany in a loss on penalties in the Algarve Cup in Portugal. The Americans had the edge in shots and corners, but that wasn't enough.
The Germans are the defending World Cup champions -- they ousted the U.S. in the semifinals in 2003 -- and coach Silvia Neid also will be tinkering.
"We're in the same position as the Americans with many top players missing," Neid said. "I don't mind playing the U.S. in the first game -- or the last game here. The results here are secondary. Playing the Americans first will help get our attention."
Germany, the World Cup and European champions, may need a few games to warm up.
"I think England is like us," Neid added. "We have been off for a few months in the winter and this is our first time back. China and the Americans have been together and practicing hard for this."
Germany will be without star forward Birgit Prinz, a three-time FIFA world player of the year. She has 101 goals and for Germany and has been left home for university studies -- and rest.
Other missing players, likely to be starters in the World Cup, include: Kerstin Garefrekes, Renate Lingor, Steffi Jones and Sandra Minnert. Garefrekes also is studying, and the other three are nursing various injuries.
China will be missing coach Ma Liangyu, who reportedly has been hospitalized with heart problems. The team will be handled by assistant Wang Han Ming, who wished his boss a speedy recovery.
China's other key absence will be injured midfielder Li Li Bai.
"China's focus continues to be the World Cup and the 2008 Olympics," Wang said. "We want to see how big the gap is between us and some of the best teams in the world."
England coach Hope Powell is also measuring her team, whose profile lags far behind men's soccer in England.
"While we aren't where we'd like to be, it is improving," said Powell, who played 66 times for England and scored 35 goals. "We are definitely making some strides forward."
Ryan picks the English as a sleeper, particularly if they find some scoring.
"Given a striker, they have a shot to win this," he said.