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ANALYSIS

Loss Won't Tarnish U.S.

Heinrichs, veterans say they should not be judged solely on their 3-0 loss to Germany.

October 11, 2003|Grahame L. Jones | Times Staff Writer

Two losses in 12 years, that's the statistic that should have given the critics pause but didn't.

No sooner had the United States been beaten by Germany on Sunday in the semifinals of the Women's World Cup, than the second-guessers were out in force.

The future of April Heinrichs as coach of the no-longer-world-champions was suddenly brought into question. Was she really the right person for the job?

The matter of whether Heinrichs had selected the correct 20 players for the tournament -- an issue that never was raised as the U.S. swept through the first round and the quarterfinals -- became a hot topic.

Suddenly it was fashionable to trot out theories about "the 91ers" -- Brandi Chastain, Joy Fawcett, Julie Foudy, Mia Hamm and Kristine Lilly, the five holdovers from the 1991 world championship team -- being too old, too slow, too predictable, too uninspired.

Tactics, too, were called into question. Why had Heinrichs selected the lineup she did for the Germany game? Why did she make the substitutions she did? Why hadn't the U.S. changed its attacking approach earlier instead of constantly floating high balls into the German penalty area, where they were gratefully gobbled up by German goalkeeper Silke Rottenberg?

On and on it went all week. But that one statistic never surfaced.

The fact is, the U.S. team's 3-0 loss in the semifinals was only its second in World Cup play in 23 games dating to the first women's world championship in China in 1991.

The other loss also came in the semifinals -- to Norway in 1995.

Less than one year later, the U.S. won the gold medal at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Three years after that, it regained the world championship. So why all the fuss and anguish now?

In part, it is a healthy sign that women's soccer has grown up, that fans and the media care not only about whether the team wins or loses but about how it plays the game and about which players it puts on the field.

The criticism that has been widespread over the last five days might be unwelcome to the American players, and some of it might be unfair, but being criticized is far better than being ignored.

On Friday, at the hotel in Long Beach where the U.S. has been staying ahead of today's third-place game against Canada at the Home Depot Center, Heinrichs and some of her players talked about what was, what might have been and what will be.

The gist of their argument, to paraphrase Heinrichs, was that one loss does not define a program.

There is no arguing against that. The U.S. remains the most successful women's soccer team in the world, no matter whether Germany or Sweden walks off with the World Cup after Sunday's final.

In the 16 years since the founding of the women's national team, it has won not only two world championships and Olympic gold and silver medals, but it has an enviable overall record of 226-48-30.

No other nation can match that.

So Heinrichs will keep her job, certainly through the 2004 Athens Olympics and probably beyond.

And the veterans on the team will be back for a final hurrah next year, whether the critics like it or not. There will be changes, certainly, but they are unlikely to be dramatic.

"I still think my team is the best team," goalkeeper Briana Scurry said. "You can't tell me any different.... It's just unfortunate that we ran into a buzz saw in the semifinals. We didn't want to run into it at all, but we'd rather have run into it in the final than the semifinal, obviously.

"Just because the Germany game didn't work out it does not diminish the ability of the team or [of] the people who were chosen [to be on it]."

Mia Hamm agreed.

"It's easy for people on the outside [to second-guess]," she said. "I love this team. I truly do. The unselfishness and the focus of this team from Day 1 have been awesome.

"Yes [it should stay together], but I also know it's 10 months [until the Olympics]. And I also know injuries [can occur]. But also, who thought 10 months ago that Shannon Boxx was going to be on this team? And now she's one of the all-stars, so you never know."

It will be more difficult for new players to break into the team if the Women's United Soccer Assn. fails to return. Boxx, like Abby Wambach and Angela Hucles and Kylie Bivens, all made the U.S. roster based on their WUSA performances.

"It makes it harder," Fawcett said. "Going into a residency is very different than having a league. It's more like one long camp and you're playing against each other. You have your friendly games once in a while [but they] don't have that competitiveness and that same [intensity]."

Fawcett expects Heinrichs to shake things up a little in the coming months as the team prepares for the Olympic qualifying tournament in Costa Rica in February.

"Usually when something happens you definitely look to the coaching staff to make changes," she said.

"But a lot can happen between now and the Olympics. Players can get better [or] they can lose something. If there isn't a WUSA, it hurts a lot of players who might not be as good training on their own. A lot can change for a player in the next few months.

"I expect there will be changes [to the team], hopefully not too many."

Look for youngsters from the U.S. under-19 world championship-winning team to make their move, especially the attacking duo of Heather O'Reilly and Lindsay Tarpley.

But also look for "the 91ers" to remain on hand to guide them.

Meanwhile, there is still today's game to play, and Heinrichs expects nothing less than a victory.

"It's a matter of wanting to walk off the field winning the game," she said. "It's a matter of wanting to walk off the field knowing that we played a great World Cup. And it's a matter of being able to feel good.

"No one wants to leave a World Cup having lost that last game."

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