Unsung heroes. The U.S. women's national team has quite a few of them, but it's only a matter of time before the rest of us realize there's no such thing -- just status quo for a U.S. team brimming with tremendous depth.
The CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying tournament, which wrapped up April 12th in Cuidad Juarez, boasted a different luminary for each game, a player on a seemingly unstoppable hot streak: Nicole Barnhart for her brilliant save in PK's against Canada, Heather O'Reilly's tireless work ethic on the transition, Angela Hucles' spark off the bench and Natasha Kai's inevitable scoring barrage. Meanwhile, Abby Wambach continued her dominance up top, captain Christie Rampone locked down the back, and Shannon Boxx and Carli Lloyd synchronized their tandem playmaking.
CONCACAF also served as a test lab for the U.S. women, as the Olympic Qualifying tournament put them under pressure for the first time in 2008 to achieve a "win-or-go-home" result. The Yanks outplayed an inexperienced Jamaican team 6-0, but faced a psychological challenge against Mexico in front of an Olympic-worthy crowd of 20,000. In stoic form, the U.S. capitalized on the fan energy to wear down the hometown favorites, 3-1. Despite a nail-biter of a scoreless first half against Costa Rica, the U.S. women pulled out 3-0 victory in the second half to earn a much-anticipated Olympic berth.
The final match against Canada put the skids on the team's run under Sundhage. Lloyd got the U.S. on board with a tremendous goal off a set piece in the second overtime, but the ebullient celebration that followed her clutch play left the team vulnerable to Canada's attack.
"Kim Creedy scored from Canada, and she just did a great job getting herself in the box -- it was a great goal on her part," said midfielder Heather O'Reilly, "But we'll remember that in the future and play all the way till the final whistle, that's for sure." The seventh penalty shooter, O'Reilly took the final kick to clinch the CONCACAF championship game 6-5, but not before setting Barnhart up for her heroic save.
Not surprisingly, Sundhage was pleased to see the team struggle a bit: "Being pushed to penalty kicks is one of the best things that could happen to the U.S. team in this tournament." Clearly, Sundhage is a coach who likes to push the envelope, as she's proven throughout her short tenure by rigorously subbing -- leaving no corner of the field unturned.
"It takes a lot of courage for a coach to make a lot of substitutions and give a lot of people time on the field," said forward Abby Wambach. "She really wanted to know how some players would react." The "reaction" was practically non-existent, as the new school of youngsters (Rachel Buehler, Amy Rodriguez, Lauren Cheney and Tobin Heath) played seamlessly in the team's lineup.
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U.S. vs. Australia
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A fluid holding midfield and more scoring options up top contribute to the team's offensive strength at this stage, but the back line has been a bit of a puzzle for the coaching staff. Sundhage has top keepers in Barnhart, Solo and Scurry (who will most likely be an alternate), not to mention some of the team's most experienced vets in Rampone, Kate Markgraf and Cat Whitehill. Indomitable or not, the back line has let a few slip by them, and in crucial moments against Canada and Mexico.
"I go up against our game defense nearly every day in practice, and they're definitely hard to crack," said O'Reilly, stressing the team still needs more time to gel. "We have a lot of people that can jump in there, and the back line won't miss a beat."
The team has a slew of domestic games this summer to help them prepare, starting with Australia this weekend on Sunday, April 27 in Cary, North Carolina, and then in Birmingham, Alabama the following weekend on May 3. Fresh off a trip from Beijing where she was on hand for the Olympic draw, Coach Sundhage is ready to get her team focused on specific strategies to help prepare against a diverse group of opponents.
"I'm very excited about the challenge of the draw overall," said Sundhage in a U.S. Soccer press release. "It's good to know who we will be facing in the Olympics, but now we must focus on Australia. We have many things to work on, but the preparation schedule is excellent."
Drawn into Group G, USA will face Norway, Japan and New Zealand in first round play. Not quite "the Group of Death," as Abby Wambach suggested, Group G will be a challenge nonetheless. The team has played well against Norway, recently defeating them 4-0 in the Algarve Cup, and 4-1 in the 2007 World Cup third place game. Japan will be difficult to pin down -- extremely quick and very technical on attack, the U.S. defense will have their hands full. Don't assume New Zealand will be a walk in the park either: With a new head coach and an up-and-coming program, the most unpredictable team in the group will surely give top squads a run.
In the meantime, the three-week road trip culminating in Washington, D.C. will pit the U.S. in a rematch against Canada at RFK Stadium on May 10. Sundhage will then select a streamlined roster to travel to the Peace Queen Cup in South Korea, held in mid-June. The tournament will have the U.S. facing off against 13th-ranked Italy, and Australia for the third time in two months. As for the third group match against Brazil, the U.S. ladies will finally have the chance to redeem themselves in the most anticipated game of the year against Marta and Co.
But first things first -- the U.S. will need to rev up its engines against the Matildas, who nearly defeated Brazil 3-2 in the World Cup quarters last year. This Sunday, WakeMed Soccer Park will hold a coming out party for sophomore Tobin Heath, as well UNC alums Lindsay Tarpley, Cat Whitehill, Kacey White, Heather O'Reilly and Lori Chalupny. Ranked 12th in FIFA rankings, the Matildas have been on a major upswing with their game down under since last year. The last time the U.S. faced Australia, in the Peace Queen Cup in October 2006, the Yanks took home a 2-0 win.
While the Matildas bring a 20-strong squad, featuring 15 players who recently played in the World Cup last fall, head coach Tom Sermanni also brings five exciting prospects to give a "fair go," most notably teen striker Kyah Simon. Cheryl Salisbury, the most capped Aussie on the team, will have the unenviable job of stopping red-hot Wambach and Kai.
"We want to add some new sophistication, that's our goal," said Heather O'Reilly. But don't expect the Yanks to tone down their competitiveness or physicality one bit. Say hello to the Pia Sundhage era: same players, hybrid game.
Lindsey Dolich is a contributor to ESPN The Magazine and covers the U.S. women's national team for ESPNsoccernet.