The road warrior mode suits the U.S. women's national soccer team well. After coming off a triumphant three-game domestic tour -- the first of 2008 -- the U.S. is back in foreign lands with a surgically-enhanced roster. With three players coming off recent surgeries, which include an arthroscopic knee procedure on keeper Nicole Barnhart, gall bladder removal for captain Christie Rampone and a double-hernia operation for midfielder Aly Wagner, the team is plying a fine balance between peaking and burnout. The 2008 Peace Queen Cup, to be held from June 14-23 in Suwon, South Korea, boasts some very good competition for the 21-strong American squad (defender Ali Krieger is abroad, rounding out the roster to 22), which coach Pia Sundhage will abridge to 18 players for the Beijing Olympics.
Unfortunately, veterans Leslie Osborne and Cat Whitehill will also be going under the knife after suffering ACL tears within 19 days of each other; Osborne ruptured her anterior cruciate ligament during training at the Home Depot Center, and Whitehill picked up her injury one day into the WNT's trip in, South Korea for the Peace Queen Cup. Stephanie Cox, who was not named to the original pre-Olympic roster, will be flying to Suwon to replace Cat Whitehall, who is out for the year.
Heather Mitts can still taste the bitter irony of ACL's cruel fate, as she comes full Olympic-ringed circle from her own injury, almost a year ago to date. "I've been in contact with Leslie almost every day since her injury," Mitts said. "I know how she feels and what she's going through, and I want to be able to lend her any support or answer any questions she might have. Unfortunately, we're in a situation were I was able to offer the same support to Cat Whitehill. It's never easy when a teammate goes down."
The road ahead for the U.S. women isn't looking any less trying, as games against Brazil, both abroad and domestic, will test the American's progress under Sundhage. "I think listening to the environment, during dinners and at trainings, this is really a team," wrote Sundhage in an email from South Korea.
|U.S. women's schedule|
|U.S. vs. Australia
Suwon Sports Complex; Suwon, South Korea
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U.S. vs. Brazil
U.S. vs. Italy
Regardless of her satisfaction with the chemistry, the perfectionist in Sundhage has very specific goals: "[We need] to stay a little more compact in defending and win the ball a little bit more in midfield, not always in the back four. We will work on a lot of set pieces in this tournament. If you look back, we haven't scored that many goals on set pieces. It could be a strength (for the team), but it isn't yet."
The U.S. women will turn their focus to Group B, where they'll play matches against newly coined rival Australia, the feisty Italians, and a long anticipated do-over against Brazil. Canada should take Group A, but there will be a scrum over points between closely ranked Argentina, New Zealand and South Korea. The winners of Group A and Group B will play in a stand-alone final game.
There's no denying that USA-Brazil is the match to watch: "No matter where you are, playing against Brazil is a great thing because of the history. They have some very technical players. They are not playing strict zonal defending, so that means the movement of the ball and the more sophisticated runs [we] do, the better the attack will be," Sundhage said.
"The rematch against Brazil will involve a lot of emotions," Mitts said. The veteran defender added that she's ready to jump into this game, which she watched on TV last year. "I feel like I'm just different as a player. I'm more focused on quality on the ball."
Whichever team makes it out from docile Group A, will not just be crowned winner, but it will also pocket a hefty $200,000 in prize money. This is only the second Peace Queen Cup, which is held every other year in South Korea. In 2006, the U.S. took the inaugural championships 1-0 over Canada.
Here's a capsule look at the other teams:
Brazil: The Carinhas will be one of the most anticipated matches of the year for the U.S. women, who'll be looking to return the favor from the 2007 World Cup semis, a four-goal favor. Women's FIFA Player of the Year Marta and speedy striker Cristiane -- known for terrorizing defenses -- are among the best in the world. Midfielders Formiga and Renata Costa will also be a handful. The Brazilians are difficult to prepare for, as their style of play often verges on whimsical, unpredictable and dangerously offensive. The Carinhas will bring an extremely talented cast of individuals to the Peace Queen Cup, but the paucity of international tournaments in their preparation schedule might leave them vulnerable.
Australia: The Matildas come off a shaky performance in the Asian Cup, where they were on the losing stick of 3-0 losses dealt by Japan and Korea DPR. But the Aussies are perfectly capable of tackling the soccer goliaths, pushing first-ranked USA to two extra-time electrifying matches in May. The return of veteran Joanne Burgess reinforces an inconsistent midfield, and skipper Cheryl Salisbury will lead the team's transition from the back. Look for rangy forward Kate Gill to guide her fellow young attackers, who will need to play with poise to score on a difficult group.
Italy: Coming off a close loss to Sweden in UEFA Euro Qualifying, Italy's backline shows a marked improvement from when the USA last played the team in the Algarve Cup in March, defeating the Azzurre 2-0. Patrizia Panico and Melania Gabbiadini are virtually twin scoring threats, and Tatiani Zorri and Pamela Conti are known to send in the occasional rocket from outside the box. If anything else, don't discount the team's fiery passion, which is quickly becoming a trademark feature for the Italian women; it'll serve them well in their quest for the Women's Euro 2009.
Argentina: The Peace Queen Cup will be the Argentineans best opportunity in 2008 to prepare for their Olympic debut. Coach Jose Carlos Borello brought most of the current players on the team up through the youth ranks since he joined the staff in 1998, and the youth investment is finally paying off. The senior squad earned a berth to the 2007 World Cup by upsetting Brazil, 2-0, in the South American women's Football Championship, but the team's baptism of fire in the first round was a big letdown. Offensively inclined defender Eva Gonzalez and striker Maria Potassa shore up Argentina's young potential, and attacker Rosana Gomez is one of the team's most consistent threats.
New Zealand: New Zealand also brings a novice squad to the Peace Queen Cup, one that earned the nation's first berth to the Olympics over Australia in the Oceania region. The team carries a broad spectrum of experience; the age difference between the oldest player, Wendi Henderson (36), the Ferns' intelligent striker, and midfield prodigy Annalie Longo (17), spans two decades. Coach John Herdman hopes the team will carry the caps and lessons learned from the 2007 World Cup back to Beijing this summer. He'll rely on captain Hayley Moorwood and rising star Ali Riley from Stanford University to control the midfield. Unfortunately, with a 13th-hour invitation to the Peace Queen Cup to replace North Korea, New Zealand will not be able to showcase the full squad.
South Korea: The host team has only two players older than 24 on the roster, and South Korea's age shows in the face of more experienced competition. The team recently lost to Australia 2-0 in the 2008 Asian Cup, and but made a good showing against a strong Japanese team, winning 3-1. Hee-Young Park leads the team with six goals in 2008, and netminder Jung-Mi Kim is the second most capped player on the team. Korea Republic will be hoping to improve on a washout performance from the previous 2006 Peace Queen Cup, and they'll look to close the gap between their Olympic-bound northern counterpart Korea DPR.
Canada: The Canadians are probably still feeling the sting of a 6-0 fallout against the U.S. at RFK Stadium, and they'll have to dig deep to find top playing form again. But the recent announcement of coach Evan Pellurud's retirement following the Olympics leaves the future of a young, transitioning team in doubt. Peaking at the end of his eight-year tenure with the national team, Pellured hopes for Canada to medal, if not at least finish in the top-eight. Kara Lang, Melissa Tancredi and captain Christine Sinclair will need to carry the team on their feet, especially against Argentina -- the Canucks will be making their Olympic debut along with their South American opponents in Group E.
Lindsey Dolich is a contributor to ESPN The Magazine and covers the U.S. women's national team for ESPNsoccernet.