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Sep 29, 2007

Third place isn't the charm

In the Olympics, a bronze medal is still a coveted trophy, so there seems to be a point to a third-place soccer match. The third place match at the World Cup has also been some consolation to fans when the host nation, such as South Korea or Germany, has been able to perform one final time for their fans.

Those instances aside, many consider the match to decide who is third in a World Cup tournament is completely irrelevant. Most people only remember who raised the trophy.

To the two teams who came so close, yet ultimately, so far from the point of vying in the final match for that trophy, playing in the opening game of the big day is probably the ultimate wallflower's dance.

Yet the teams can always play for pride. The U.S. has played in the FIFA Women's World Cup third place match twice already, winning both in 2003 and 1995. Norway lost the only third-place game in which they participated, falling via penalty kicks to Brazil in 1999 after a scoreless draw.

The salve that the U.S. can take from the game is continuing the streak the team has that no country has ever matched. It has never finished lower than third at a Women's World Cup.

For a program that aims for the pinnacle of the sport, however, and has invested more money and effort to reach that goal than any other country, the 2007 World Cup will be considered a failure. Just how big of a failure remains to be seen in this final match.

The repercussions of game could determine the future for many on the American squad.

Norway, in contrast, probably has few qualms about how this game will affect their program's status. The small Scandinavian country has already achieved much in the sport, and will perhaps go down as the women's equivalent of Uruguay -- another country that had early World Cup success before other countries started to truly prioritize the tournament.

If anything, though, Norway's latest run in the World Cup confirms that their program hasn't really fallen off. Bjarne Bernsten's squad continues to be a dangerous contender that will vie for the world title even as more countries improve their female soccer programs.

Norway faces an uphill climb against the U.S., though. The team is banged up entering the match.

Solveig Gulbrandsen, their key playmaker, hobbled off in the semifinal match. Two of Germany's goals were scored in her absence. Even if she plays versus the U.S., she is unlikely to be at her best. Gulbrandsen at least will be present. Lene Mykjaland has left the tournament due to illness. Solid defender Gunhild Folstad has a twisted knee and could miss the match.

Still, the physical bumps and bruises probably don't compare to the psychological ones the U.S. will have to contend with after suffering the program's worst loss in all its history. That it came after a controversial and much-maligned goalkeeping switch by coach Greg Ryan only added to the stress of the situation.

Ryan had already been under scrutiny, mainly for emphasizing what seemed to be a direct and limited playing style on his squad. He was also criticized for his failure to sub a player in for Abby Wambach when she took a blow to the head in the opening match. During the time the Americans played a man down while Wambach received stitches, North Korea scored two goals. As the games went on, it was surprising to many that Ryan made so few substitutions during games, rotating through only a very small number of his available roster.

Yet the last-minute move to put Briana Scurry in goal instead of regular starter Hope Solo was the most confounding tactical call of all. It failed to work, with the U.S. suffering a comprehensive 4-0 loss.

After the match, a statement by Solo characterized Ryan's decision as "wrong". The firestorm that had been brewing erupted.

Ultimately, the decision was made by Ryan and others on the team to ban Solo from the Norway match completely. Scurry will start in goal again.

It could be that the team rallies around both their embattled coach and the goalkeeper who led to squad to some of its greatest wins.

An emphatic defeat of Norway, one in which Ryan's direct tactics yield results, could serve as proof that his former unbeaten streak at the helm was no fluke. The result against Brazil might be seen as a simple aberration.

However, another match in which the team plays disjointed, with little connection in the midfield, and with a jittery defense yielding up goals, could spell doom for Ryan's tenure.

Norway has traditionally played the U.S. very tough, winning an average of half the contests between the two teams. Despite Norway's injuries, another tough effort could topple the Americans, especially without Solo in goal.

What's interesting is that the fallout over Ryan's goalkeeping switch has become the story of the 2007 Women's World Cup. It has completely overshadowed Brazil's emergence as a world power in the game, let alone the story of Germany becoming the first country to earn the chance to defend its title. The lively footskills of Marta and the precision play of Brigit Prinz took a backseat to speculation on the psyche of the U.S. team.

It was both the unprecedented nature of Ryan's decision as well as the historic result that followed, that drew a huge amount of attention.

Despite Solo's banishment, or perhaps because of it, many curious viewers could now be on hand to watch how the U.S. players will react and whether they can recover from the Brazil defeat.

For once, the opening game on the final day could be the match that is more anticipated. The third-place game could be the new star of the show, rather than the contest which actually settles the winner. Yet the morbid fascination that might draw some to see if the U.S. team will implode makes the entire entertainment something of a sideshow.

Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She also writes for soccer365.com and contributes to a blog, Sideline Views. She can be contacted at soccercanales@yahoo.com.