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U.S. Women Taking Nothing for Granted


ADELAIDE, Australia — It's the party line that's being trotted out in the U.S. women's soccer camp, where the worst thing anyone can do is to speak ill of an opponent.

On Sunday, the opponent will be Brazil, and if the U.S. can defeat the South Americans at Bruce Stadium in Canberra, it will be assured of at least a silver medal to put alongside the gold it won in 1996.

But don't dare call the Brazilians weak, or ordinary, or not much of a challenge, even though they have beaten the Americans only once in 14 years.

That would be impolite. Worse yet, it might jinx everything.

Instead, all you hear from U.S. players and coaches is how difficult the game is going to be.

"We're psyched," winger Shannon MacMillan said after the U.S. had defeated Nigeria, 3-1, in Melbourne on Wednesday to advance to the semifinals. "Brazil's another great team. We'll enjoy this victory tonight, but starting tomorrow, all the focus is on Brazil and we're going to have to play our best game yet to beat them."

Coach April Heinrichs fosters this attitude, making sure no one provides the Brazilians any bulletin-board material.

"Brazil is a team that is a little bit like Nigeria," she said. "They play with a difficult shape for us, they play very stretched out. It's difficult for us because the game becomes so elongated. We prefer to squeeze the game from behind.

"With their technical ability and their speed all over the field and their ball skills and their individual defending, it's a difficult team for us to play. Our team has the utmost respect for Brazil."

Respect is one thing, reality another.

The U.S. has dominated Brazil over the years. Its all-time record against the South Americans is 13-1-2, and it has outscored Brazil, 43-9, in the 16 matches since the countries first met in 1986.

As recently as Sept. 1, the Americans strolled past the Brazilians, 4-0, at San Jose.

Brazil has some individual players who can cause problems--players such as shaven-headed midfielder Sissi, the creative genius who all too often seems surrounded by ordinary mortals.

The Brazilians scored only five goals in their three first-round matches: two each by Raquel and Katia and one by Pretinha.

The U.S. hasn't exactly set Australia alight either, scoring only six goals. MacMillan, Brandi Chastain, Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly, Tiffeny Milbrett and Julie Foudy have each grabbed one.

After Wednesday's game, Heinrichs was asked what she would do with the players between then and Sunday's game.

"Pack on a lot of ice," she said. "We've got a lot of nicks. Do some resting. It's not about teaching or coaching or training sessions between now and our semifinal game.

"It's about resting, reinforcing, recognizing that that environment that we played in tonight was difficult, but that a great team has to be able to play Nigeria, they have to be able to play Norway, they have to be able to play the style in the air, the style on the ground, a team that squeezes, a team that stretches.

"We have to be able to play and beat any team in the world."

The U.S. has done that. It is, after all, the defending Olympic and world champion, whereas Brazil is--dare we say merely?--the South American champion and a third-place finisher in last summer's Women's World Cup.

The women's game has gone from strength to strength over the last decade, but it still lacks depth. The sport would benefit by having a few more teams such as Norway and Germany, the other Olympic semifinalists, in its ranks.

Instead, the U.S. is faced with a second-tier opponent. But don't say that to defender Joy Fawcett.

"They're all good teams," she said. "There's no easy road here."

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