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A Flying Start

Hurricane Isabel's aftermath could force United States and Sweden to take their games to the air

September 19, 2003|Grahame L. Jones | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — When Hurricane Isabel arrived in the nation's capital Thursday evening, it brought with it more than just ferocious winds, torrential rain, power outages and widespread flooding.

It brought a likely change of tactics to the United States' opening game in the fourth FIFA Women's World Cup at RFK Stadium on Sunday.

Fifth-ranked Sweden is the opponent, which in itself is problem enough, but playing the Swedes on a potentially wet and treacherous field means only one thing: Aerial duels aplenty.

When the ball can't be played smoothly and predictably on the ground, the route to goal is through the air, and therefore an afternoon of midair clashes between powerful Scandinavians and equally powerful Americans is likely.

Fortunately for U.S. Coach April Heinrichs, she has players unafraid of putting their head into the path of a rain-slicked, crazily spinning and fast-moving ball, risking black eyes, broken noses and assorted headaches if the ball isn't headed just so or if the inevitable collision with an opponent does some damage.

Players such as forward Cindy Parlow, defensive midfielder Shannon Boxx, attacking midfielder Julie Foudy and defenders Joy Fawcett, Brandi Chastain, Cat Reddick and Kate Sobrero, to name a few, are adept in the air and more than willing to put their bodies at risk.

Because what it takes is not just skill but courage.

"You have to challenge, you have to be willing to head it, there's a lot of courage involved," Heinrichs said. "Defensive heading is about courage. There's certainly technique and timing to it. In terms of your jumping, you've got to be strong in your upper body. If you're getting bumped while heading, you've got to be able to deal with that."

Boxx put it more simply. "You've got to be fearless," she said.

Timing is everything, Sobrero suggested.

"The one thing I always try to do is to jump as high as I can, and then try to win the ball," she said. "It's all about timing. Even the shortest players can be the best headers because of great timing."

Chastain agreed.

"If you jump first, they can't get above you," she said. "I think you have to have a little bit of courage. You have to know how to protect yourself.

"And I think it's just reading the ball early in flight, what type of ball it is. You can tell by the position of the player who's hitting it.

"Goalkeepers have a tendency to hit the ball really flat, so it's usually just in a straight line. On a bending ball, you have to read the bend."

There is a difference between offensive heading and defensive heading. It's not at all just a case of getting noggin to synthetic leather.

"No. 1, it's a commitment to want to head it," Heinrichs said. "Defensive heading is not as technical or as difficult a skill to achieve as attacking heading.

"In attacking heading, you've got to get over the ball, you've got to head it down, you've got to head it between the posts. That's three things you don't have to do with defensive heading.

"With defensive heading, you've just got to get something on it and get it going the other way."

In other words, just clear the ball out of danger.

"The technique is different in terms of what your [objective] is," Chastain said, "but I think ultimately the basic and most fundamental principal of heading is the desire to get to the ball first.

"There are teams that are highly skilled at winning air balls, and then there are teams where you can tell it's not them. If that's the case, you must take advantage of it."

There is disagreement in the Americans' camp over which of the team's three-first-round opponents presents the greatest aerial threat.

Sweden has always been strong in the air but lately has been adding a ground game to its offensive arsenal.

Nigeria is unpredictable, powerful enough and unafraid of engaging in aerial dogfights but also quick and skilled on the surface.

As for North Korea, not much is known. The question, in other words, is up in the air. But Heinrichs points to the Koreans' recent successes in Asia.

"North Korea has now beaten China three times," she said, "and that's the equivalent of Canada or Mexico beating us. They're pretty strong, strong in the air, strong in the tackle [and] apparently vicious at times."

Not all the duels, it seems, will be in the air.


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