For the third straight tournament in the past few months, the United States women will travel across international borders to compete. This time, the term "friendly" will not be in the Yanks' repertoire.
The U.S. women are riding a seven-game winning streak under coach Pia Sundhage onto the world's stage -- CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying, which begins this week in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. With triumphant wins at the Four Nations Tournament in China in January and at the Algarve Cup in Portugal in March, the U.S. women hope to continue a successful 2008 run. Placed in Group A, the U.S. team will face Jamaica on Friday, followed by Mexico on Sunday, in the Estadio Olimpico Benito Juarez. The team is in for a wild ride over the weekend, since it will be facing the hometown favorites in a stadium that holds just more than 22,000 fans.
The U.S. women have history on their side, with a 10-0-0 record in CONCACAF Olympic qualifying. In 2004, the United States beat Haiti, Mexico and Costa Rica by at least three goals each during the tournament in Costa Rica. The United States will most likely face Canada in the semifinal, a fickle opponent that has given the team problems in the past, as recently as 2006.
Sundhage brings a tailored 20-player roster to Mexico, and CONCACAF rules stipulate that only 18 players can suit up for each game. For the first time since 2005, when she took a year off from the team, veteran Briana Scurry is absent from the roster. Goalkeeping duties will fall to Hope Solo and Stanford alum Nicole Barnhart. Rachel Buehler, another Cardinal who is finishing up her senior year, made the cut over Heather Mitts to become the youngest player on the experienced back line.
The biggest wild card in the lineup came when Sundhage switched out Angie Woznuk for midfielder Kacey White. A former standout at the University of North Carolina, White spent the past two seasons since 2005 with club Balinge in Swedish league Damallsvenskan. On her blog, the newest member of the U.S. women's team wrote about her introduction to Sundhage: "'Kan du prata Svenska (Do you speak Swedish)?' These were the first words I heard from our new national team coach, Pia Sundhage." Between her Tar Heel blue and Swedish connections, White should fit right in.
The United States will play at 10:30 p.m. ET Friday and 4:30 p.m. ET Sunday. The top two teams from Group A will advance to the semifinals, where they will face the two best teams from Group B, which includes Canada, Costa Rica and Trinidad and Tobago. The winners of the two semifinals Wednesday will qualify for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Here's a look at the other teams:
Coming off a two-game sweep against Cuba in the CONCACAF preliminaries, the Reggae Girlz are the new competitors on the block. They have outscored their Caribbean opponents 27-0 and have not conceded a goal in 450 minutes of CONCACAF qualification. Currently ranked 73rd in the FIFA standings, Jamaica's lineup is flush with young, athletic talent. Defender Natalya Manyan and freshman phenom Shakira Duncan have garnered accolades playing for Oral Roberts University, while Yolanda Hamilton and Omolyn Davis have earned valuable time at Lindsey Wilson College. Keep an eye on Jamaica's top goal-scorer, Venicia Reid.
|U.S. women's schedule|
|U.S. vs. Jamaica
Ciudad Juarez, Mexico
10:30 p.m. ET
U.S. vs. Mexico
Holding down the 22nd spot in the FIFA rankings, Mexico is an ever-present threat. In the women's qualification tournament in 2004, Mexico captured second place over Canada, a thrilling upset. The women of the Tricolor are in capable hands, with Leonardo Cuellar having directed the team since 1998. Banking on homegrown talent and a mix of Mexican-Americans, Mexico will look to goalkeeper Sophia Perez, a graduate of San Diego State, and Monica Gonzalez, who starred at Notre Dame, to anchor the defense. Maribel Dominguez and striker Patricia Perez are capable offensive veterans. Don't count Mexico out. The team is small, crafty and quick -- and its game has grown tremendously over the years.
Coach Even Pellured brings a dynamic team to the pitch, with a potent mix of vets and newcomers. Christine Sinclair, Randee Hermus and Amy Walsh -- who have a combined 301 caps -- anchor the defense and attack for Big Red. Robyn Gayle, an explosive senior defender at UNC, and Sophie Schmidt, a playmaker at the University of Portland, bring fresh legs. Pellured's primary concern is Mexico, especially after the 2004 upset. Nonetheless, his crew is set. "The players are healthier than ever before, and we feel quite well prepared for this competition," he said. The Canadian soccer team has yet to earn a berth in the Olympic Games since the sport was added in 1996.
Trinidad and Tobago
Technical director Jamal Shabazz leads the Soca Princesses. Prolific striker Maylee Attin-Johnson anchors the offense, while Mariah Shade and Tasha St. Louis keep the midfield afloat. The team hopes to get a double spark from 21-year-old twin sisters Marissa and Maria Mohammed, as well as U.S.-based forward Kennya Cordner, who brings experience from the Women's Premier Soccer League to the squad. Trinidad and Tobago will have to utilize exceptional speed up top to best its highest finish in CONCACAF women's competition, a third place finish in 1991.
The Ticas earned a spot in the tournament by defeating Nicaragua in a Central American second-round series. Costa Rica finished fourth when it hosted the tournament in 2004. Juan Diego Quesada will have a difficult challenge keeping the young team on track against bigger and stronger competitors.
Lindsey Dolich is a contributor to ESPN The Magazine and covers the U.S. women's national team for ESPNsoccernet.