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SPORTS EXTRA: SYDNEY 2000 / SUMMER OLYMPIC GAMES

Soccer

With Top Teams in Same Group, U.S. Will Need to Prove Its Mettle Early

September 10, 2000|GRAHAME L. JONES

WOMEN

* OVERVIEW--The inaugural Olympic women's soccer tournament four years ago drew capacity crowds, including 64,196 for the U.S.-Norway semifinal and 76,489 for the U.S.-China gold-medal match, both in Athens, Ga. Similar attendance is not expected in Australia.

Even so, the tournament is certain to be intensely competitive, featuring, as it does, the top seven finishers from last summer's Women's World Cup in the United States, along with the host nation, Australia.

The draw has a lopsided look to it, with the top three teams in the world--the U.S., China and Norway--in the same first-round group. One of the three will be eliminated before reaching the medal stage, and it's a toss-up which team it will be. Nigeria rounds out the four-team group, from which two will advance to the semifinals.

The other group features Australia, Brazil, Germany and Sweden, with the hosts being the under-dingo. Again, two will advance.

The Chinese have been beaten three times by the United States with a medal on the line: in the third-place game at the 1995 Women's World Championship, in the final of the 1996 Olympics and in the final of the 1999 Women's World Cup. They are the best team never to win a major trophy, but this could be the year goalkeeper Gao Hong, World Cup '99 most valuable player Sun Wen and the rest of the talented Chinese team make up for past disappointments.

The Norwegians are the only team to hold a winning record against the U.S. They are 14-12-2 all-time against the Americans, including 3-1-1 this year. Coach Per Hogmo's most dangerous weapons are playmaker Hege Riise and strikers Marianne Pettersen and Dagny Mellgren.

The U.S. has switched to a 4-4-2 formation under Coach April Heinrichs, which means that one of its best strikers, Cindy Parlow, is relegated to an off-the-bench role. In a group where goals will be tough to get, that could be a costly unless starters Tiffeny Milbrett and Mia Hamm produce.

* OTHERS TO WATCH--Brazil, Germany and Sweden.

Brazil's recent 4-0 loss to the U.S. in San Jose showed that the South Americans are not fond of wet, heavy fields, something they are likely to encounter in Australia. But with playmaker Sissi in midfield and with the speed and firepower of Katia, Pretinha, Roseli and Maicon up front, it will be a contender.

Germany's 3-2 loss to the U.S. in the World Cup '99 quarterfinals is all the inspiration it needs should the teams meet in Sydney.

* BEST STORY--Can the "old women" of the American team, the six players who have been been its backbone for more than a decade and who have led it to two world championships and an Olympic gold medal, produce the magic one last time before retiring from international competition, or will the second-guessers be left to argue that the U.S. should have taken a younger, hungrier team?

* * SOUTHLAND ATHLETES ON U.S. TEAM--Julie Foudy, Mission Viejo; Joy Fawcett, Rancho Santa Margarita, UCLA; Shannon MacMillan, Escondido.

* KEY DATES--Wednesday, U.S. vs. Norway. Saturday, U.S. vs. China. Sept. 19, U.S. vs. Nigeria, Norway vs. China. Sept. 23, semifinals. Sept. 27, gold-medal match.

Fast Fact

* Mia Hamm is the all-time leading goal scorer in the world among men or women with 125 goals, but the leading Olympic scorer for the U.S. is Shannon MacMillan with three goals.

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