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Jun 26, 2008

Sundhage blends old and new for Olympic roster

With the announcement of the 2008 Beijing Olympic roster, the U.S. women have welcomed the value of surprise -- and for that, head coach Pia Sundhage gets the credit.

Embrace change. Be brave. These are Sundhage's words, her battle cry to rally a transformed U.S. women's team as it heads into the final stages of Olympic preparation. The Yanks are just getting fired up after winning the 2008 Peace Queen Cup over Canada, 1-0, in Suwon, South Korea. Even with the $200,000 check weighing in pockets back home (to be split among all the players), the U.S. women are feeling a certain buoyancy that comes with securing Olympic spots after enduring roster roulette the past seven months.

In a conference call from Sweden on Monday, Sundhage patiently explained her personnel decisions, including the absence from the list of longtime goalkeeper Briana Scurry, who was named as an alternate.

"I always start with performance. I always start with everything on the field." Sundhage also noted that selected goalkeepers Hope Solo and Nicole Barnhart are especially good with their feet, a vital asset in the scheme of the team's attacking system.

Only nine players return from the gold-medal 2004 Athens Olympics team. Three-time Olympian Kristine Lilly's experience will be missed, but co-captains and mothers Kate Markgraf and Christie Rampone boast their own impressive three-time Olympian track records and a 17-0-1 record in 2008.

Markgraf and Rampone will ably guide the "kids" on whom Sundhage smartly took a chance. Defender Rachel Buehler, striker Amy Rodriguez and midfielder Tobin Heath make up the coterie of first-timers, who have never participated in a senior-level world championship before. Lauren Cheney, the fourth youngster to earn consistent caps in 2008, will take a supporting role as an alternate.

"Buehler is one of the toughest players I've ever seen," Sundhage said. "Tobin Heath, she's really unpredictable, and that is important going into the Olympics. Amy Rodriguez offers speed, and in international games you really need speed."

Stephanie Cox and Aly Wagner made fortuitous late bids for the Olympic squad after Leslie Osborne and Cat Whitehill bowed out from ACL injuries. Wagner's game fitness might still be questionable because she has been recovering from a double sports hernia operation, but Sundhage has seen enough post- and preinjury play to convince her otherwise.

Cox will have to rally her confidence after nearly missing the cut to be called up to the Peace Queen Cup to replace Whitehill. Don't forget the addition of Heather Mitts, who had looked like a long shot back in March because of injury concerns. The back four, more than any other area of the field, will need to jell quickly in the next slate of Scandinavian and domestic games.

Here's a look at the 2008 Beijing Olympic squad:

Goalkeepers

Nicole Barnhart: The 5-foot-10 Stanford grad brings brains and a sizable shot-stopping game in front of the net. Though she has only nine caps, Barnhart has shown she's incredibly poised under pressure, earning solid shutouts against China and Norway earlier this year. She also played the hero against Canada in the CONCACAF championship, stopping a penalty kick after double overtime to keep the U.S.' undefeated record this year intact. She has made a full recovery from arthroscopic knee surgery in early May.

Hope Solo: A testament to her fighting spirit, Solo earned her spot back on the team after the World Cup fallout in 2007. She's playing the most minutes right now and, according to Sundhage, is the current the No. 1. That's no surprise considering her credentials -- she has started in goal for the U.S. in every age level of national-team programs. Recovering from shaky communication in the back line early in the year, Solo seems to be more comfortable working for an openly forthright Sundhage. Solo has one of the best kicking games in the world and is superb in the air and on the ground.

Defenders

Rachel Buehler: Although she's only 5-5, Buehler can bump and grind with the best of them. She has started five out of 11 caps this year alone and should split minutes with Heather Mitts at right back. She's been the top defensive choice to come off the bench and will be a good matchup against more physical teams.

Lori Chalupny: Chups seems to be a lock for starting left back. By moving Chalupny from the center of the park to the back, Sundhage has given the back line an offensive maverick on the wings. The newly transitioned defender is extremely versatile, and she's one of the team's most consistent performers. Even if Chalupny flies under the radar at times, her unbeatable work ethic will drive up her minutes in the Olympics.

Stephanie Cox: Cox had a quiet start to the year despite an impressive starting performance in last year's World Cup as one of the youngest players on the squad. Regardless, she has earned solid minutes with her co-captains on the back line in high-pressure situations. With an impressive U.S. youth national-team record, look for Cox to be a sub off the bench -- but it'll be an uphill battle for her to break into the starting lineup again.

Kate Markgraf: One of the central leaders of the defense, perhaps second only to Rampone, Markgraf is one of the most intelligent tacklers in the game. The 1998 vet has blossomed on the offensive transition recently, providing a timely assist against Mexico in the CONCACAF Olympic qualifier. She ranks among the top four defenders with the most caps in U.S. history and, at 32, still marks the best players with terrific recovery speed and heading ability.

Heather Mitts: After a drawn-out ACL rehabilitation, Mitts is nearly back to her old form. Though she says her speed isn't 100 percent just yet, she's feeling healthy and stronger than ever. Mitts has proven her game fitness after putting together a string of tough 90-minute performances against some tough forwards in Canada, Australia and Brazil. She's extremely tenacious for her size, and with her passion stronger than ever, expect the veteran defender to fight tooth and nail for every ball.

Christie Rampone: The team's current captain had some pretty big cleats to fill when a pregnant Kristine Lilly relinquished the captain's band. But Rampone has done a first-rate job patching up a broken 2007 team, taking in a new head coach and pushing the team to the FIFA No. 1 spot. With 194 caps, Rampone has the most of any player on the team, but she is also the voice of calm and a model of fitness. Her quiet leadership by example will be more important than ever to keep the team on track for gold.

Midfielders

Shannon Boxx: The defensive midfielder plays in tandem with her offensive counterpart Carli Lloyd, and she's one of the best supportive forces around. Since she made a comeback from major injuries in 2007, Boxx has been a rock in the midfield -- her ball-winning skills with her head and feet have kept her a consistent starter in the lineup.

Tobin Heath: The youngest, and perhaps most unpredictable player on the team just celebrated her 20th birthday. Her fearless creative ball skills rival the Brazilians', and she has a nose for the goal wherever she is on the field. Heath's versatility -- she can play anywhere on the field -- will earn her minutes in games, most likely as a flank midfielder/forward.

Angela Hucles: Hucles is having a stellar year, and she's truly embraced the team's role as the quintessential 12th woman. She's a spark plug off the bench, as demonstrated by her two game-winning goals in overtime against Australia, and most recently, Canada in the Peace Queen Cup. Hucles' profile has risen dramatically under Sundhage's direction, and she's capable of single-handedly changing the tempo of the game.

Carli Lloyd: The offensive midfielder has earned some quality starts and playing time, a testament to her hard work and physical presence. Her deadly shot, which she'll rocket anywhere inside the 40, is a huge asset that she needs to unleash more often on unsuspecting defenders. Lloyd is also the team's conductor on set pieces: When she's on, her corner kicks and free kicks are first-class.

Heather O'Reilly: A consistent performer, O'Reilly is a major triple threat. She can score, dish the game-winning pass and defend. An all-around team player, O'Reilly's speed on the wing should be used more in the team's offensive transition. Though she's only 23, she already has seven years of experience on the senior team, and has an accomplished national and collegiate background (she was the youngest gold medalist on the 2004 Olympic team).

Lindsay Tarpley: Young veteran Tarpley is also one of the latest protégés of Sundhage to transition to a new position from striker. She's done well at left wing, and if she times her runs with Chups, the left side will be extremely difficult to defend. Even though she cooled off for a few months after her scoring barrage at the start of the year, Tarp is capable of netting some brilliant goals.

Aly Wagner: There's no denying Wagner was a surprise addition to the roster, considering she's been hampered by injuries since 2007. Wagner's skillful play-making and defense-splitting passes dating back to 1998 earned her a spot, but she'll need the extra magic touch, considering she's earned only 200 minutes or so in 2008 (all in the Peace Queen Cup alone). Barring complications and further injuries, Wagner's return will give the midfield a huge boost in experience.

Forwards

Natasha Kai: The first Hawaiian to make an Olympic team, Tash Kai has been blazing up front with 11 goals in 12 games. After nearly falling off the wagon at the beginning of 2008 because of fitness issues, Kai fought her way back and earned a spot as Abby Wambach's newest strike partner. She's extremely athletic, and most of her goals are off breakaways and headers. As long as Kai keeps her work rate up when it comes to challenging defenses, Kai should be a starter.

Amy Rodriguez: A scrappy forward, A-Rod is the yin to Wambach's yang. She's only 5-foot-4, but she's extremely explosive, and it's difficult to push her off the ball. Although she has only 19 caps, her youth experience has paid dividends in helping her put up four critical goals on the senior team. She has the finishing ability and the smarts to get behind defenses for the angled pass. Rodriguez should be favored by Sundhage to come off the bench.

Abby Wambach: "Dear Abby: She's fantastic," Sundhage expressed enthusiastically about the team's prolific scorer. (She has a .80 goals per game career average.) Rightly so, as Wambach is definitely capable of making players write home about the problems they've had defending her. Wambach can put up a bang-up performance, but she also can score with the aid of serious ball skills. But despite Wambach's continued production, the U.S. is diversifying from a singular scoring threat, so opponents will have to look to shut down her passing lanes.

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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