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Dec 2, 2008

U.S. faces powerful German team in semifinals

Good things come in threes for the U.S. under-20 women. The U.S. team sprung back from a 2-0 loss to China in group play by knocking out England in the quarterfinals with a flurry of strikes in the second half to emerge with a 3-0 victory. The win was the team's third shutout and third victory in four games by a three-goal margin. The Americans will travel to Temuco, Chile, to face a daunting battle against Germany in the 2008 FIFA U-20 World Cup semifinals Thursday (5 p.m. ET, ESPN360.com and ESPNU).

Although the U.S. team has an extremely potent offense that has produced seven of the team's nine goals in tournament play, it still trails Brazil (just eliminated by Germany), Korea DPR and Germany in fourth place for goals netted in the tournament. But the U.S. has the edge on the Germans in defensive proficiency: It has held opponents to only .5 goals a game, compared with Germany's 1.25 allowance.

Remarkably, the U-20s keep an already-heroic streak ablaze as they forge ahead to play yet another semifinal matchup in a FIFA women's event. The U.S. women's national team programs have advanced to the semifinals of every FIFA tournament at both senior and junior levels -- a record that includes five FIFA Women's World Cup tournaments, four Olympic Games, two FIFA U-19 Women's World Cups, two FIFA U-20 Women's World Cups and the just-completed inaugural U-17 FIFA Women's World Cup.

But there are no assurances that the Americans will advance to the finals, as the U-20 team has failed to break into the top two since 2002. The U.S. fell to Germany in the 2004 semifinals and to China in the 2006 semifinals. This year's edition pits the U.S. against Germany for a rematch of the 2006 quarterfinal in Russia -- a game in which the U.S. toppled Germany 4-1 and ostracized the team from the domain of gold, silver and bronze. Needless to say, this will be more than just a semifinal game; it will be a clash between nemeses.

U.S. U-20 women's schedule
Thursday
U.S. vs. Germany
Temuco, Chile
5 p.m. ET, ESPN360.com and ESPNU

Although the England match was a good test for the U.S. women, the Germans will be considerably bigger, faster and stronger. If the quarterfinal game hadn't played out as a tale of two halves, Tony DiCicco's squad would have been facing an early knockout.

"England was a very good team, and they are well coached," DiCicco said in an U.S. Soccer Federation news release. "They forced us to change the way we played tonight, and I think if they had gotten on the board first, tonight's game could have been very different."

Captain Keelin Winters powered her way to the winning goal, perfectly heading the ball into the corner netting to put her team on the board. Winters is finding her groove in the midfield and is a consistent target for teams that have no tactic other than to chop her down. With Germany's holding midfielder Kim Kulig out after she racked up her second yellow card in two games, the center of the park might favor the duo of Winters and Becky Edwards, especially with the tandem's specialty of slotting passes through to strikers Alex Morgan and Sydney Leroux.

"On any given day, anyone can come out and win these games," Winters said in an USSF press release. "We would love to reach the final, and our goal is to win it, but it's going to come down to who wants it the most and who shows up on the day. If we can come together as a team the way we have been, I think we have a chance to win it just like any other team."

Super-sub-turned-starter Leroux continues to be a step-up player. She came through again for her squad in the quarterfinal against England when she tallied two goals in the last 10 minutes. But if Germany opts to singularly mark Leroux and Morgan, then Winters, Edwards, Nikki Washington and Christine Nairn (who subbed in and assisted on the first two goals) can be called on to contribute.

On the close-to-perfect back line, full-time defenders Nikki Marshall and Lauren Fowlkes, along with Elli Reed and Meghan Klingenberg, will see double ... squared. Because two sets of twins play on Germany's squad, the Americans will need to see straight, especially when working with the Banecki sisters, Sylvie and Nicole, who both play forward. The other set of twins is Isabel and Monique Kerschowski. Isabel, the more experienced twin, will be a handful. She's tied with Nicole Banecki for a team-leading two goals.

Goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher & Co. also will need to keep a weary eye on offensive-minded fullback Katharina Baunach, who already has garnered a goal and two assists and clearly is capable of sneaking up on the attack.

What will make the difference in the semifinals? "In the first half, I thought we were struggling to win the 50-50 balls, and in the second half, I think we were winning most of those balls," Winters said in an USSF news release. "I think that made a huge difference, as we were able to get our forwards the ball."

There will be no room for error against a German squad that took down perennial U-20 tournament favorite Brazil. If the U.S. women play to get on board early and often and possess the ball intelligently for the full 90 minutes, the Yanks should be able to squeak by in a close match.

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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