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Aug 20, 2008

U.S. women confident of redemption

BEIJING -- After the U.S. women's semifinal victory over Japan on Monday, U.S. coach Pia Sundhage broke into a rendition of Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin.'" Now, with a gold-medal grudge match against Brazil set for Thursday, Sundhage will be hoping that "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" on the Americans' opponent.

Of course, both teams can claim to be in the revenge business; Brazil over the 2004 Olympic finals loss to the U.S, and the Americans from their semifinal defeat to the Samba Queens in last year's World Cup. But given the manner of the latter result -- a 4-0 beatdown that was the Americans' worst-ever defeat -- it's safe to say the Yanks are nursing the bigger hangover and as a consequence find themselves in the unfamiliar role of underdog.

Yet if the team's body language is anything to go by, the U.S. is carrying a quiet confidence heading into the match. And why not? Sundhage, she of the glass is always half-full attitude, has instilled a heavy dose of self-belief into her side. This in part is due to the possession-based style the Swede has implemented.

With a more varied attack, the Americans are thinking they'll eventually find a way to break opponents down, as opposed to 2007, when the team had nowhere to go when the battering-ram, one-route approach didn't work. All of this has allowed the controversy of last year, in which the team imploded both on and off the field, to slowly recede into the background.

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

"I don't think that we think about last year," said midfielder Shannon Boxx following the Japan match. "This team is so different than a year ago. We're very offensive-minded now; we're not defensive-minded as much.

"The team has come together, and we've had some hard breaks. We lost Abby [Wambach], we've lost Leslie [Osborne], we've lost some big-time players. That has been the challenge, to say, 'We need to come together as an 18,' and we've done that. I'm really proud of the way that we've come together as a team, and that's been the difference."

That said, there are some recollections from the World Cup that can't be completely forgotten. The own goal by Osborne, the ejection of Boxx and the sight of Brazilian attacker Marta showboating on the ball with the game already settled all figure to be burned into the collective memory of the American side. And the fact that the U.S. team shot a commercial in which they show up at a Brazilian training session stating, "We want a rematch," only confirms that revenge will be very much on the minds of the Americans come Thursday.

"It was the last World Cup and the last big stage when [Brazil] beat us 4-0," said midfielder Heather O'Reilly. "We want that gold medal, and to be facing them. It's such a great opportunity for us to show what we can really play like, and that's what we're excited about."

While the improvements in attack have created optimism in the U.S. camp, the challenge of stopping Brazil's offense will do plenty to prevent overconfidence. Marta, Cristiane and Daniela are potential match-winners. And Brazil's light-speed transition from defense into attack, a trait that was on display in its 4-1 semifinal demolition of Germany, is another aspect of their game that will require near-constant vigilance from the Americans. Yet, when this was mentioned to Boxx, she was far from overawed.

"I think [Brazil] has great players, and we have to pay attention and respect that," Boxx said. "But we're more focusing on ourselves, and every game we have gotten better."

If that continues on Thursday, then it will be another excuse for Sundhage to break into song.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes for Center Line soccer and can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com.

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