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Aug 20, 2008

U.S. faces explosive Brazilian offense

For all the sturm-und-drang leading up to the Olympic gold-medal match, the United States women's soccer team has one last tempest to reckon with -- a Brazilian team hell-bent on capturing its first title.

On Thursday at 9 a.m. ET, the U.S. will once again attempt to excavate the legendary, if not somewhat archaic, "golden girls of the summer" trademark performance.

Mia Hamm now stands as an epochal memory, and Kristine Lilly, Briana Scurry and Abby Wambach of the 2004 reign have faded into the backdrop of the team's latest run for a world championship.

Yet one doesn't have to look far to find the two remaining original "golden girls," Kate Markgraf and captain Christie Rampone, who continue to shore up the U.S. back line since their first days in 1998. Remarkably, Markgraf and Rampone are just settling into the prime of their playing careers, but they are also the gatekeepers responsible for ushering in the next generation -- led by Heather O'Reilly, Carli Lloyd and Natasha Kai.

Now the giant spotlight of the Olympics will travel to downtown Beijing to the Workers' Stadium, coming to rest squarely on Rampone and Markgraf's defensive troops. All eyes should be on the quintet -- rounded out by Heather Mitts, Lori Chalupny and keeper Hope Solo -- as the U.S. defense prepares to face one of the most explosive offenses in the world: Brazil, better known as the queen of Joga Bonito.

U.S. women's schedule
U.S. vs. Brazil
Thursday
Beijing Workers' Stadium, Beijing, China
9 a.m. ET

The "showdown" between the United States and Brazil might as well be a euphemism for the bitter catfight that is likely to ensue between the two sides, with more than just a gold medal at stake.

How could the Americans forget the shadow of a team the Brazilians left behind in the 2007 World Cup, as Marta and her teammates romped to a 4-0 win through a tattered U.S. defense?

No, the Americans might forgive, but they'll never forget. "[Those are] not good memories," Shannon Boxx said about the World Cup debacle.

With the United States and Brazil each entering the final game with a prolific 11 goals apiece, the championship will boil down to which squad can do its best imitation of the Great Wall of China.

"Playing a perfect game for any team I think is impossible," Lori Chalupny said. "We're playing a fantastic team, and we're going to have to play well, but we're excited."

Rampone had her own account of what it'd take to shut down Brazil: "We're going to have to stay tight as a unit, play as a full team once again, stay compact and know where they are at all times."

But as anyone who has watched Brazil knows, predictability is not the Brazilians' strong suit. Coach Pia Sundhage should consider converting Heather Mitts and Christie Rampone into marking backs to rein in Marta and Cristiane -- otherwise, the attacking duo will slice up even a tightly knit U.S. zone defense just like in 2007.

The good news? Hope Solo is playing world-class soccer and has shown great confidence in dealing with difficult balls, whether on the ground or in the air. "I think she's played great," said defender Lori Chalupny. "She's made some really big saves for us. It seems like every game she makes an amazing play. She's definitely one of our strong players and we'll need her in the final I'm sure."

Sundhage will be hailed for making a brilliant strategic move by giving reserve Lori Chalupny the role of attacking defender; left free to roam up the wing, Chalupny takes the U.S. counterattack to town nearly every time she possesses the ball.

The U.S. also cannot afford to underestimate Daniela, Brazil's itinerant midfielder moonlighting as striker. Shannon Boxx will have to rely on her mobility and tackling savvy in order to contain Brazil's third offensive weapon.

Unless Carli Lloyd can return to form with her 30-yard bullets, which she demonstrated in the lead-up to the Olympics, the Americans will continue to rely on peripheral midfielders Heather O'Reilly and Lindsay Tarpley to unsettle young Brazilian keeper Barbara.

Even without Lloyd's usual shooting prowess, the U.S. women have evolved into one of the most versatile scoring machines: all-for-one and one-team-for-all. The U.S. women have seemingly inherited a wealth of scoring riches in absence of Abby Wambach, and the Brazilian defense may simply not be able to withstand the deep attack an 11-woman offense brings. Nonetheless, the U.S. cannot afford to let up on a relentless 90-minute attack.

Jorge Barcellos' Brazil team looked equally vulnerable as the U.S. in the opening minutes of its quarterfinal game against Germany, making one blunder after the next. But just like the Americans against Japan, Brazil dominated the rest of the match, making the German team look like oversized stick figures in slow motion.

For all the progress made by the United States, the explosiveness and mastery of the ball by the Samba Queens in the quarterfinals was a stunning demonstration of why Brazil is still the team to beat.

And if for some reason the U.S. women fail against Brazil, there's hope on the horizon in the form of a new professional league, Women's Professional Soccer, which will announce its allocation draft following the Olympics.

"I'm excited that the league is coming back. I think it's going to do well no matter what, because the U.S. is ready for another league," said Shannon Boxx. "I'm excited for it because I'm a product of the old league. To be able to have our national-team coaches go out locally and see great games and find some new players, to keep the tradition of the U.S. national team top-ranked, that's great."

For once, U.S. women might throw tradition out the window, and follow the lead of their quirky Swedish coach, Pia Sundhage, who won't relent until the beautiful game becomes firmly entrenched in the United States, too.

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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