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U.S. women favored again in Algarve Cup

U.S. women's national team coach Pia Sundhage is already thinking about 2011. The 2011 FIFA World Cup in Germany, that is. Painted in the shimmering hue of optimism, the gold brick road begins in Portugal, where the 16th annual Algarve Cup will be held from March 4-11. On the eve of Women's Professional Soccer's opening season, the Algarve Cup will also most likely be the sole international tournament in 2009 for the U.S. women's national soccer team. "I have taken in consideration the WPS schedule when I planned the WNT calendar for 2009," Sundhage said via e-mail, prior to the team's departure for Portugal on Feb. 25. "The WNT has only two camps and four games during the WPS season. That is my way to tell everybody that the league is important." But Sundhage has some substantial goals in mind for a team that will soon be out of her coaching grasp for a good portion of the year. "We want to work on the attack. We will talk, show video and discuss our play in two parts of the field, in front of the back line and behind the back line. We want to dictate the tempo, be able to find the right time to penetrate and score goals. That's why everybody needs to be comfortable with the ball. We also want to look at set pieces." The U.S., the current two-time defending Algarve champions, will open against Denmark on March 4 in Group B at the Municipal Stadium in Lagos. The opening game is sure to be a closely contested affair, especially with a flock of new players who will be testing their senior team legs for the first (or second) time on foreign soil.

U.S. women's schedule
U.S. vs. Denmark
March 4
7 a.m. ET
Municipal Stadium; Lagos, Portugal

U.S. vs. Iceland
March 6
10 a.m. ET
Parque Desportiva da Nora; Ferreiras, Portugal

U.S. vs. Norway
March 9
11 a.m. ET
Municipal Stadium; Albufeira, Portugal

With 12 teams competing in three groups of four, the Algarve Cup has a unique format: Group winners in A and B will compete for the title and second-place finishers play for third. Teams in the less competitive Group C will compete for spots 7-12. The Americans will also face relative newcomer Iceland on March 6 and Olympic foil Norway on March 9 to round out group play. After spontaneously self-combusting against Norway in the opening game of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the U.S. women will have to face some inner demons against their perennial rivals in order to capture Group B. However, with seven championships and a near monopoly on the Algarve Cup, the Americans can afford to spare themselves the mind games. With an eclectic Group A featuring Germany, Finland, China and Sweden, it'll be a toss-up to see whether the U.S. will draw Germany, China or Sweden in the final. This year, Group C features Portugal, Poland, Wales and Austria. Here's a breakdown of the top contenders: Norway: Manager Bjarne Berntsen will rely on vets Ane Stangeland to anchor the defense, and Ingvild Stensland to provide experience and composure in the midfield. Norway's attack boasts gifted playmaker Solveig Gulbrandsen, as well as the Knutsen sisters, Marie and Guro; however, teams will need to be especially weary of Melissa Wiik, who has absolutely electrified Norway's offense as of late. Germany: The European powerhouse has looked vulnerable recently, particularly after Brazil battered the Germans by an uncharacteristic 4-1 score to leave the team playing for third place in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. However, internationally renowned coach Silvia Neid is capable of bringing her team up to the task of challenging the multifarious contenders for the Algarve Cup title. With striker Birgit Prinz and defender Kerstin Stegemann capable of logging big minutes, Germany's depth is one of its strengths. A strong offense driven by playmaker Renate Lingor, and new supersub forward Fatmire Bajramaj and Kerstin Garefrekes will vie for any opportunity to shine. China: Despite an early quarterfinal exit in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the Steel Roses seem to be on the road back after a series of lackluster performances in the past few years. With former coach Shang Ruiha firmly in place at the helm after several coaching fluctuations, look for China to make a markedly improved showing at the Algarve. Keeper Zhang Yanru continues to impress, and strikers Han Dan and Xu Yuan are capable of sneaking a goal or two under the wire. Denmark: The Danes will rely on Katrine Pedersen to be a steadying influence at back, and midfielder Cathrine Sorensen to orchestrate the midfield. Meret Pedersen, Johanna Rasmussen and Maiken Pape will provide the firepower up front to lead the way for a handful of offensive neophytes. After missing out on the Olympics, Denmark will be looking to blow off extra steam by targeting the U.S. and other powers this time around -- no easy task considering the last time Denmark beat the U.S. was in 2004. Sweden: The Swedes have the scoring trifecta spearheaded by Lotta Schelin, Jessica Landstrom and Victoria Svensson at their disposal, but spotty defense continues to plague the team. Coach Thomas Dennerby continues to tweak his roster, but will need to emphasize full team play and defensive discipline in order to top Germany and China, both teams that Sweden lost to by scores of 2-0 and 2-1. 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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