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Dec 5, 2008

U.S. brimming with confidence ahead of championship game

The U-20 American women can take a collective sigh of relief -- for the time being. After defeating a pugnacious German squad 1-0 in a closely contested 2008 FIFA World Cup semifinal, the U.S. U-20s booked a spot in the finals against reigning champion Korea DPR on Sunday, Dec. 7 (4:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN360.com).

The match will mark the Americans' first appearance in the final of the FIFA U-20 tournament since winning the championship in 2002 when it was staged as an Under-19 event.

But the Americans also banished the dark cloud of the 2006 U-20 FIFA World Cup that was hanging over them, along with the fourth-place finish that nearly signaled an international feeding frenzy on the U.S. youth program. Although it might be a bit premature, kudos should be given to head coach Tony DiCicco, who has rebuilt the U-20 team of 2008 into a different kind of animal.

In what was arguably their best opening of the tournament, the Americans put on an impressive display of crisp, fast-paced passing, surprisingly un-American technical artistry, superb defending, and a crossbar zinger or two. Germany, to put it lightly, was completely surprised in the first half, to the effect that the team could muster only a few weak jabs at the rock-solid U.S. defense.

"It was a very difficult game," DiCicco said in a U.S. Soccer press release. "I think that if Germany would have scored than [sic] it would have probably been a very different game. I think we defended very well tonight and we've done that all tournament. I'm proud of my players because they've played a lot of games in a short amount of time, which isn't easy but I'm glad we've made it to the final. We've gotten better as the tournament has gone on and that is a testament to our players."

U.S. U-20 women's schedule
Sunday
U.S. vs. Korea DPR
Estadio Municipal de la Florida
Santiago, Chile
4:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN360.com

The U.S. managed to hang on to the early lead throughout the second half, despite Germany's resurgent offense. Thanks to good positioning by leading goal-scorer Sydney Leroux, who earned her fifth goal of the tournament, and Nikki Washington's tireless work ethic on the wing, one goal was all the Americans needed. If Washington has the kind of game she did against Germany, she will be a major thorn in North Korea's side. Her ability to take on two, sometimes three defenders at a time, while still managing to execute well-placed crosses under considerable duress, sets her apart as one of the most dangerous players on the U.S. team.

If the U.S. can keep the same tempo and efficacy in the first 20 minutes against Korea DPR, the Americans will be very difficult to shake off. However, the Yanks should be weary, as Korea DPR possesses exceptional finishing abilities -- as evident in the team's surge over France in extra time to seal a 2-1 semifinal win. Despite the fact that Korea DPR fell short statistically, accounting for only 41 percent of the possession and taking 13 shots to France's 16, the North Koreans have proved they know how to win big games.

"I know our coaches are going to have some info about North Korea but I think we're going to continue to work on the things we're good at and hopefully we'll come away with a good result," midfielder and captain Keelin Winters said in a U.S. Soccer statement. Winters will most likely have the most difficult matchup of the final over her midfield partner Becky Edwards -- she'll come up against one of Korea DPR's strongest players in the center of the park, Ri Ye Gyong. The U.S. back line should also be targeting Ri, who has four goals and two assists and was the hero responsible for the game-winning goal over France.

Interestingly, the only loss dealt to the U.S. came at the hands of China. Head coach DiCicco will have to do some extra strategizing with his young charges to prevent a similar collapse against an Asian powerhouse that plays a similar system -- but better executed.

The U-20s have the last shot at claiming the singular U.S. women's FIFA World Cup title in the current three-year cycle, after the U.S. senior team placed third in 2007, and the U-17s finished second in 2008. The USA-North Korea clash will also be a rematch of the FIFA Under-17 Women's World Cup final held three weeks ago in New Zealand, which the U-17s lost to North Korea in overtime of the championship game.

After six years in the shadows, it might just be the U-20 U.S. team's turn to shine.

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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