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May 11, 2008

U.S. continues stunning progress under Sundhage

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. women like to walk on the wild side. Filling their quota of hairy moments for 2008, the Yanks got a taste of the outback, courtesy of the Australian women's national team. After triumphing over the Matildas with two back-to-back buzzer-beaters in injury time on April 27 and May 3, the U.S. was hoping its game against Canada would go a bit more predictably. Not quite.

On a cool night in the nation's capital, the U.S. pounded Canada 6-0 in an electrifying game full of big surprises. Taking a cue from the big island, the Americans rode the wave of Natasha Kai's hat trick and a trifecta of assists from Abby Wambach.

Just three weeks ago, the Canadians took the U.S. women to penalty kicks in the CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying Championships. It was inevitable that America's northern counterpart would amp up a 41-game rivalry, a given considering nearly every player from Canada has American collegiate soccer ties. But the 42nd game was a different story, hosted at D.C. United's RFK stadium, in front of over 10,000 screaming fans.

"The way we won the game, it's a winning feeling and that is so important to have when we go into the Olympics," coach Pia Sundhage said. "This is perfect training for us." After seeing her squad's performance following three down-to-the-wire matches, Sundhage is confident with the core of her team. Sundhage acknowledged the U.S. needs to improve its possession outside the box and minimize defensive mistakes, like the two own goals scored by the back line in the second match against Australia.

In spite of their inconsistency, the Americans showed flashes of brilliance leading up to Saturday's game at RFK Stadium -- like Carli Lloyd's dramatic 91st-minute game-winner headed home after a scramble in the box, and substitute Angela Hucles' volley in the 94th minute. Hucles' tally may very well be the team-effort goal of the year: The ball did not once touch the ground after it was lofted from a Cat Whitehall boom back in the Yanks' front half and flicked backwards by Wambach to set up Hucles. It was a jaw-dropper, executed in the halo of the Americans' first televised match of the year.

When asked after the CONCACAF title game how opponents could beat the U.S., Heather O'Reilly put it quite bluntly: "Ourselves." The next best thing to help the team prepare for a psychological opponent? The Australians and Canadians, who strike nearly mirror images of the U.S. players in size, physicality and fitness. Sundhage credited a serious video session before the RFK game as a major key to the team's dramatic improvement over Canada.

"I'm thrilled. We talked about changing up the rhythm in the attack. My dream is to take this game to the next level and I think we can do it," Sundhage said after game, positively beaming. "We are halfway there. There were so many good things I could stand here for an hour just talking about how good it was. And it still could be better. We had two great games to analyze against Australia. This last game of the three-week camp made me very happy."

Happiness was all around, from the opening whistle all the way to the boisterous celebration the U.S. players shared with the crowd following the game. Captain Christie Rampone and fellow veteran Kate Markgraf had an early Mother's Day treat in the opening introductions, when their two children tottered out with a full bouquet of flowers.

Those weren't the only warm embraces, as Kai ran into Sundhage's arms after her first goal in the 54th minute off a feed from Lloyd.

"Pia's given me the chance, she believed in me. I wanted to share the support," said Kai, who credited her teammates, especially Wambach, for encouraging her up top.

"I've never had that before -- I don't think she liked me in the beginning," laughed Sundhage, who was completely surprised by Kai's postgoal celebration. "I think she wanted to share her happiness."

The Americans seem to be finding their groove with a 4-4-2 formation that has the defensive flanks pushing forward aggressively. After a somewhat sloppy first half with more than enough chances coming off eight corner kicks alone, the U.S. stormed into high gear in the second half. Lindsay Tarpley's perfectly struck goal off an Wambach layoff in the center was a bright spot in the first half, along with fine play from Lloyd, O'Reilly and Lori Chalupny. Heather Mitts finally put together a solid 90 minutes after coming back from an ACL injury, no easy task against Canada's towering forwards, Melissa Tancredi and Kara Lang.

Sundhage continued to inspire her team during halftime, sharing wise words: "Enjoy the journey. Remember this moment." Indeed, it was a moment the U.S. women reveled in, as they scored a flurry of goals in back-to-back eight-minute scoring intervals that lasted until the 87th minute. Shannon Boxx played some terrific balls to switch the field, leaving the Canadians stumbling to recover, and substitutes Leslie Osborne and Amy Rodriguez made an immediate impact off the bench. The final tally was a testament to the heart of the team, after Rodriguez took the ball to the end line and connected with Osborne for the final goal of the match. Behind it all, Wambach orchestrated the U.S. win in her newfound role of playmaker, feeding her teammates with tireless abandon.

Plaudits go to Kai, who came roaring back after a rough start to 2008 with some health and fitness issues. Coming off a white-hot CONCACAF series, in which she scored four goals in two games, the flying Hawaiian doesn't show signs of slowing down anytime soon -- recording her first hat trick with the U.S. women's team. Kai scored twice with her head, the third a finesse right touch away from Erin McLeod's dive. If Kai keeps up this level of play, she'll be Wambach's new sidekick, and we just might get to call them the "Bash and Dash Sisters."

"No fear at all. That's me, that's my personality," Kai said.

An axiom that just might qualify as the U.S. women's new mantra.

Lindsey Dolich is a contributor to ESPN The Magazine and covers the U.S. women's national team for ESPNsoccernet. She can be reached at soccerdols@gmail.com.

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