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Mar 22, 2009

Emergence of youngsters cushions blow of Algarve Cup loss

The 2009 Algarve Cup championship trophy was not meant to find its way alongside six others already in residence at the U.S. Soccer headquarters after a riveting March 11 final that capped the U.S. women's 10th appearance in Faro, Portugal.

Head coach Pia Sundhage's native country, Sweden, caused the U.S. team's loss. The Swedes squeaked by 4-3 on penalty kicks after a 1-1 tie in regulation went straight to a shootout.

But the Americans did not go quietly. After slamming home a 90th-minute equalizer in regulation and queuing up for seven penalty kicks, the U.S. women finally fell prey to their 11th-hour exploits when an unforgiving left post decided the 4-3 defeat.

"History plays a big part of that, so don't take it for granted and put the spotlight on it," said Sundhage, who values her squad's productivity in the waning minutes of big games. "Against Iceland, we won 1-0 in 90th minute. Against Sweden, we tied the game late. Last year against Australia, we won 3-2 and 5-4 when we scored late in both games. That quality is very unique."

"I think our team was all a little surprised it went straight to PKs," acknowledged defender Shannon Boxx, who scored the tying goal. "Sweden played a great game, and we found our momentum too late."

Boxx, who usually plays the defensive half of a center-midfield tandem with Carli Lloyd, moved to center back to replace veteran Kate Markgraf, who is pregnant with her second child. Although the team lost the stellar play of newly appointed co-captain Lori Chalupny to illness after the second match, the U.S.' back line had an outstanding tournament.

It was no surprise then, that Boxx, one of the most versatile players on the U.S. squad, lost no time in linking up for defensive stops alongside captain Christie Rampone and goalkeeper Hope Solo, who was named the best player of the Algarve Cup.

U.S. women's schedule
U.S. vs. Japan
May 20
8:30 p.m. ET
Pizza Hut Park; Frisco, Texas

"Pia has seen that we are one of the best defensive teams in the world," said Boxx, who is in training camp with her Women's Professional Soccer team, the Los Angeles Sol. "Our organization and team defending is what helped us win our gold medal. So now in preparation for the 2011 World Cup, she wants us to become one of the best on the offensive side. With both Christie and I in the back, she felt like we could add another element to our offense. It's not every day you see a center back flying forward."

After Solo stocked up on saves like there was no tomorrow (including one on a penalty kick), it's understandable that the U.S.' starting keeper got a bit fuzzy on her highlight reel of stops. "It's hard to recall my saves in detail -- I'm kind of in a zone during games," Solo said. It was this Zen-like focus that helped Solo lead the defensive charge against opponents Norway, Iceland, Denmark and Sweden, allowing only one goal in four games.

"All the coaches were talking about her," said Sundhage, who was delighted with Solo's performance. "And still she could improve her game, which is great. She gives the back line and the team confidence, and she will play an important part in counterattacks in the future with her kicking game."

Hard-tackling Rachel Buehler and fresh face Kendall Fletcher also dispatched solid performances against rival Norway, which the U.S. beat 1-0 to advance to the final. As Solo pointed out, it's not easy coming into a virtually unflappable defense against Norway as a first capper. "I was so proud of her coming in, Kendall played with no nerves," Solo said. As one of the young players allocated to the WPS' Los Angeles Sol, former UNC standout Fletcher will benefit greatly from playing on what looks to be a championship-caliber team.

The Americans also showcased an explosive group of youngsters who left an indelible mark on the minds of the U.S. coaches. In fact, three of the neophytes accounted for 60 percent of the team's goals, not counting goals scored on penalty kicks. With Megan Rapinoe, Angie Woznuk and Christina DiMartino each scoring a goal, Sundhage has every reason to be excited about her prospects up top.

Forward Rapinoe, earning plaudits all around, seemed to be Sundhage's pet project in the Algarve tournament after the U.S. coach played her in all four games at a whirligig of positions. With only four caps to her name, Rapinoe rose impressively to the task, showing the mental fortitude she has built up after battling back from two major knee injuries in two years.

"Megan Rapinoe improved her game from day one," Sundhage wrote in an e-mail from Europe. "She could play out wide or in the middle, is good on the ball, has a great shot, and she might grow to become a game winner in a couple of years. She has great potential."

Sundhage also spoke about the team's ongoing developments in the areas of team possession and an inconsistent attack that at times seems to defer scoring to a last-minute crash course in front of the opposing team's net. The good news? The diversification on the U.S. team's offense has never been better, as five of the team's goals came at the gilded feet of five separate players.

"We need more time, and we have plenty of time, and we need the courage to try different things in the attack," Sundhage said, looking ahead on her list of things to do before the World Cup in 2011. "So, our priority [will] be improving the flank play and finding creative, unpredictable wing players and center midfielders with a tactical mind in the WPS. Coaching is about believing in your game plan and being patient."

Sundhage has released her charges to eager WPS teams around the nation, which have been gearing up for season openers in the past month. The U.S. women won't come together again until May, but in a matter of weeks they'll find themselves in a novel position: facing off from opposite ends of the park.

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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