Longtime rivals Norway to provide a physical test
FARMINGTON, Conn. -- Past, present and future have a way of meeting whenever the United States and Norway play. So perhaps it was only fitting that former national team coach Tony DiCicco looked on from the sidelines of the Connecticut club, of which he is now president and technical director, where the current national team practiced in preparation for both this weekend's game against Norway and the upcoming World Cup.
The United States and Norway have played each other more often during the last two decades than college gridiron rivals Ohio State and Michigan. In fact, after Saturday's game at Rentschler Field (6 p.m. ET, ESPN2) near Hartford, the two sides will have played 40 times since their inaugural meeting in 1987, the same number of times the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins played during their famous NFL rivalry of that span. And after all that time, the United States holds just a 19-18-2 edge in the series.
"It's great for us because it's going to be such a competitive match, much like the World Cup matches," head coach Greg Ryan said. "Neither one of us is looking at this as just a stroll in the park, so it will be a great battle, which is really important for us."
The rivalry has admittedly gone somewhat dormant since the United States eliminated Norway from the 2003 World Cup. Norway is the only team to ever win four games in a row against the United States, something it accomplished on two different occasions, but the two sides have met just twice since that World Cup quarterfinal in Foxboro, Mass., with Norway losing 4-1 in the 2004 Algarve Cup and 3-1 in last year's Four Nations Cup.
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But even if Germany emerged as Europe's top side with wins in the 2003 World Cup and the 2005 European Championships, the latter against Norway, there is enough history between these two sides to ensure that Norway remains a special rival for the Americans.
"They always will be," Shannon Boxx said. "They're a great team -- they have that great long ball, they have great headers. So we're definitely excited about the game. We know it's going to be a great challenge, and we need that going into the World Cup these last couple of games."
Since beating the United States to win both the 1995 World Cup and the 2000 Olympics, Norway has fallen off the pace at the biggest international events, culminating in the 2003 World Cup that included a 4-1 loss against Brazil in group play in addition to the loss against the United States that cost them a spot in the 2004 Olympics. Whether spurred directly by those results or in combination with the hands of time, the national program has undergone a makeover in the last four years.
Familiar names like Marianne Pettersen, Dagny Mellgren and Hege Riise are gone. Some veterans remain in the mix, like midfielder Unni Lehn and goalkeeper Bente Nordby. Along with regular starters Lise Klaveness and Ingvild Stensland, Nordby isn't with the team for Saturday's game due to club commitments in Sweden, but there is a distinctly young hue to this Norwegian side.
"I think Norway has probably turned over even more players [than the United States]," Ryan said. "And so for them, they have a really, really young side out there on the field. There are some good veterans out there, but a lot of young players that are very talented but still gaining experience each time they step on the field."
Of course, even if the names change, the team's style of play remains distinctly Norwegian. Former men's national team member Bjarne Berntsen, who took over as coach of the women's team at the beginning of 2005, has retained both the side's familiar long-ball tactics and its organized and physical defense.
"They're another very, very physical team, very strong," Ryan said. "Brazil was physical in that they fouled us a lot, but Norway is actually physically stronger than Brazil -- but they just don't foul as much. So it's a great test for us, because you know that once you get into the World Cup, teams are going to try and intimidate you any way they can, by hitting you and just being hard physically."
And while American fans missed out on a rare opportunity to see Marta two weeks ago after the star striker didn't travel with Brazil for its game against the United States, Saturday's game offers a chance to see a less-heralded star in Norwegian midfielder Solveig Gulbrandsen. Just a year removed from having a baby, Gulbrandsen is back in the starting lineup for Norway, and judging by her goals in recent Euro 2009 qualifiers against Austria and Israel, she's back in top form.
"I think she's one of the top players in the world at her position, attacking midfield," Ryan said. "I just enjoy watching her play; I hate having to play against her. She's a pleasure to watch -- great attacking player, running off the ball, running at you with the ball, her feel for getting chances in the penalty box."
Midfield is also an area of note for the Americans on Saturday, and more specifically, for two American veterans headed in opposite directions in advance of China.
Aly Wagner, who at 26 years old is already 17th with 112 international appearances for the United States, is not with the team this week due to a groin injury. She did not play against China or Brazil due to injury in the team's most recent games and has played just 72 minutes in three appearances this year.
The opposite is true for Boxx, who appears well on her way to reclaiming a starting spot for the World Cup after returning from last year's hip and knee surgeries. Boxx made her post-surgery debut on March 9 against Finland in the Algarve Cup and has appeared in every game since, including starts in the last four.
"Coming back in the Algarve, it was my first game, [I] was very nervous, not quite up to speed yet," Boxx said. "My knee felt great, but I was still wondering how it was it going to feel when I tackled, how was it going to feel when I pass the ball, kick the ball, those things. Now, I wouldn't say 100 percent quite yet, but I definitely don't think about my knee ever. And now my feet are a lot quicker, and that's the last part for me, getting my agility back. But overall, confidence-wise, I'm a lot better than where I was a couple of months ago."
Nowhere on the roster is Ryan's hand more evident than in the midfield, where Boxx will be the most capped player for the Americans this weekend. With Carli Lloyd and Lori Chalupny establishing themselves as offensive instigators and Leslie Osborne having proven herself capable of a variety of duties in the midfield during Boxx's absence, the core of Ryan's preferred three-player midfield alignment appears set.
Saturday's game also marks the uniformed return of goaltender Hope Solo, who was with the team against Brazil but didn't play in the last two matches after returning home to Washington when her father died on June 14.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's soccer coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.