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Aug 4, 2008

U.S. should have the edge over Norway

As the United States eagerly prepares to face an old foe in its Olympic opener two days before the opening ceremonies in Qinhuangdao, China (MSNBC, Wednesday, 7:45 a.m. ET), the Norwegians can't exactly say the same for the Americans.

The two sides met earlier this year for separate international tune-ups, first in March, and most recently in July -- the latter of which acted as a full Olympic dress rehearsal for both teams' starting lineups.

The U.S. women's identical 4-0 wins over FIFA's fifth-ranked Norway seemed to be evidence enough for a predictably stellar opening night performance. Yet, without bullish scorer Abby Wambach, who tallied a goal in both matches, the United States might as well be putting on an improv show.

Whether the U.S. women's à la "Wednesday Night Live" improvisation will play to Norway's advantage or not, odds are, it won't. The Wambach factor is a head-scratcher not just for the Americans, but also for a team that has consistently organized defenses around Wambach (albeit unsuccessfully) since early 2003.

But as far as impressive stats and records go, the Olympics have ways of leveling the playing field that other international tournaments don't.

Equalizer no. 1: A grueling schedule. The possibility of playing six games in 11 days? Not even the World Cup requires this kind of Iron Women fortitude.

Equalizer no. 2: The intangible. As far as sports miracles go, the Olympics practically patented the term.

U.S. women's schedule
U.S. vs. Norway
Aug. 6
Qinhuangdao, China
7:45 a.m. ET

U.S. vs. Japan
Aug. 9
Qinhuangdao, China
5 a.m. ET

U.S. vs. New Zealand
Aug. 12
Qinhuangdao, China
7:45 a.m. ET

"It's easy for me to enjoy every single minute because I've been in many different situations as a coach and player," said U.S. coach Pia Sundhage, who grasps the magnitude of her task. "I've coached Sweden youth national teams, club teams in Sweden, Norway and the USA, so I've done many things. But the fact that after all these years I've got the chance to coach one of the best teams in the world ... it's hard to explain, it's almost unreal, but here I am and I will enjoy every minute."

Equalizer no. 3: Norway and the U.S. share more than just a 21-year history and legendary programs -- the two sides have also divided and conquered some of the fiercest battles in women's Olympic and World Cup lore. This is the second time the two squads will face off in the first game of the Olympics, eight years after the Americans opened with a 2-0 win down under in Australia. But a radical U-turn left the U.S. ceding the gold medal to Norway three matches later.

Surprisingly, Norway is also on friendly terms with the Americans, to the extent international joint "play dates" are scheduled -- between rare soccer moms (and their kids) Solveig Gulbrandsen, and USA's Christie Rampone and Kate Markgraf. Apparently, it never hurts to keep friends close, and the Scandinavians closer.

Even without their world-class striker, the U.S. women still have the edge over Norway with a 10-game winning streak dating back to 2002. With the retirement of key performers Ragnhild Gulbrandsen and keeper Bente Nordby, Norway has struggled to regain a foothold in the top-three tier the last several years.

However, there are signs Bjarne Berntsen's squad is capable of returning to dominance. Just over three weeks ago, led by the Knutsen sisters, Norway upended Birgit Prinz and her fiercely stalwart German crew by a score of 2-0 in front of a joyous home crowd. Yet if there's any person more capable of dissecting Norway's game, it's Sundhage, who guided five Norwegian players in 2004 when she managed club team Kolbotn.

"Playing any team in the Olympics is a tough game," Sundhage said. "Norway is up there in the rankings and they are a really good team. We need to be careful with their counter-attacks and we need to be unpredictable to break down their defense."

Lindsay Tarpley doesn't seem too concerned about breaching the Norwegian wall in China. "The way we are playing now, we like to switch the point of attack, and in order for the flank midfielders to have space, we have to do that quickly. We've been doing that well this year, but of course, we're always looking to get better."

Under Bernsten's 4-3-3 system, 27-year-old Solveig Gulbrandsen will lead the offense as an attacking midfielder moonlighting as a forward, to better utilize her leadership and playmaking skills. Even with Gulbrandsen, Norway's finishing still lacks the consistency needed against more robust teams.

After flying under the radar in the 2007 Women's World Cup in China, sisters Marie and Guro Knutsen could potentially cause headaches for Shannon Boxx and Carli Lloyd in the midfield. Guro Knutsen has polished her game after another season of joint playing experience with older sibling Marie on club team Røa IL. If the Knutsens see time together on the pitch, they'll bring the same unique chemistry that corroded the Germans' superlative defense.

Sundhage is also weary of another well-capped midfielder. "Ingrid Stensland is an important player for their team, but I prefer to look at us facing the team Norway," said Sundhage, who has favored the U.S. women's speed and running game in the past to overtake Berntsen's squad.

Expect Sundhage to put Natasha Kai and Amy Rodriguez to task when it comes to challenging keeper Erika Skarbo, who served as Bente Nordby's backup only just last World Cup. Nerves and inexperience will be a major factor for neophyte Skarbo, who only has eight caps to her name.

The U.S. will probably favor an offensive-powered 4-4-2 against Norway in order to target Skarbo and captain Ane Stangeland Horpestad's defensive corps. If the Americans can play high pressure and curb Norway's dangerous counter-attacks from the midfield, barring a total meltdown on attack, the U.S. should control the game from the outset.

But don't count on a blowout here -- U.S.-Norway will be the most contested opening match, second to Germany v. Brazil in Group F, playing just two hours away via bullet-train at the Wu Lihe stadium in Shenyang.

After Wednesday, the U.S. women are hoping to take a big sigh of relief -- and yes, the air quality is good in Qinhuangdao.

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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