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Sep 20, 2007

U.S. and England renew friendships

TIANJIN, China -- American Cat Whitehill spotted her English friend Rachel Unitt in the hotel lobby and jumped off the sofa to give her a bear hug.

"I just sent you a text," Whitehill said. "I've just been talking about you. ... Are you going to practice? So let's hang out later. What room are you in?"

Whitehill's a key defender for the United States, which faces England on Saturday in a Women's World Cup quarterfinal in Tianjin, an industrial city of 10 million overshadowed by neighboring Beijing.

Unitt and England forward Rachel Yankey played briefly a few summers ago with Whitehill on the New Jersey Wildcats in the W-League -- the top U.S. league -- and they'll be out to eliminate the top-ranked United States and end its 50-game unbeaten streak.

"I've still got Friday to really get mad at them," Whitehill said.

The United States wobbled briefly in group matches against No. 5 North Korea, No. 3 Sweden and five-time African champion Nigeria, but managed to win the tournament's toughest group.

The 2-2 draw with swarming North Korea may be the best game of the tournament.

"We were both shattered after that game," American coach Greg Ryan said.

The Americans are chasing their third World Cup title, and England may look like a slightly easier test. North Korea faces defending champion Germany in Saturday's other quarterfinal. On the other side of the bracket Sunday, Norway plays China and Brazil faces Australia.

If the United States wins, it gets Brazil or Australia in the semifinals with the Sept. 30 final in sight.

But beware of looking too far ahead.

England is home to the modern game, and lately the English women have been emulating their men. England drew defending champion Germany 0-0 in group play. In a tournament eight months ago in southern China, the English tied the Americans 1-1. The United States played without five key starters including strikers Abby Wambach and Kristine Lilly.

"I think even if we had our players, it would have been the same kind of match," Whitehill said. "England came at us. I don't know how truly prepared we were before we played them."

Added striker Heather O'Reilly: "We've seen them recently and we know they are a big-time, quality team."

England -- where everybody can dribble a soccer ball -- plays a creative, flowing game, building from the back and attacking the flanks.

England's top threat is striker Kelly Smith, who's scored four in the first three games. She took off her shoe and kissed it after her first few goals, a move that England coach Hope Powell is unlikely to allow.

A major absence will be midfielder Fara Williams, who picked up a second yellow card in a 6-1 rout of Argentina and will miss the match.

"Kelly is very good, but they are much deeper than Kelly Smith," Ryan said. "They are definitely not a one-person team."

"There's not a lot of chinks in the armor," Ryan added. "You see discipline in their game, and that's real quality you see in English teams: great discipline and organization."

Fans in England may be skeptical of the women's game, and doubtful of the outcome. England last defeated the United States in 1988, and the Americans have won two World Cups and Olympics since then.

The game will be broadcast live in England on the BBC -- that means Saturday afternoon -- a major coup for the women's game. Unfortunately, the resignation of Chelsea's controversial manager Jose Mourinho on Wednesday, may steal some of the spotlight.

The Americans have been creating chances, but not scoring enough. They've relied on defense, the goalkeeping of Hope Solo and goals off set plays -- free kicks, corners and throw-ins.

"To be honest, I'm not extremely happy with the way things have been going," Solo said. "It's obvious we haven't been playing our best ball."

Wambach has three goals, with one each from O'Reilly and Lori Chalupny. There's been trouble building the attack through midfield, with too many short possessions and too little time on the ball.

"I think we can keep the ball a lot better than we've done," Ryan said.

A former forward, Whitehill's long throw-in led to Chalupny's goal after 57 seconds in the 1-0 win over Nigeria. She has 11 with the national team, and could provide a needed lift.