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Kickoff Foe Is Familiar to U.S.

Sweden, the first opponent 12 years ago, has played the Americans tough in six games over the last four years.

September 21, 2003|Grahame L. Jones | Times Staff Writer

PHILADELPHIA — Mia Hamm was there. She knows what happened. She remembers how it almost went horribly wrong for the United States.

It was the U.S. team's opening game of the first FIFA Women's World Championship -- it wasn't called the Women's World Cup back then -- and the opponent in Panyu, China, that November 1991 afternoon was Sweden.

Things were going well, Hamm recalled.

"I remember we played 40-minute halves," she said. "We were up, I think 3-0, and Sweden scored two goals and then missed a PK [penalty kick]. We kind of let down in the second half and they turned it up.

"I think we were all saying that if the game had gone five more minutes, they probably could have tied it up. It was a game that walking off the field we felt very fortunate to have won."

The Americans did win, and the victory put them on the road to their first world championship. Playing that day in addition to Hamm were Joy Fawcett, Julie Foudy, Kristine Lilly and April Heinrichs.

All five will be on the field today as the U.S. again plays Sweden in the opening match of a world championship, this time in the fourth FIFA Women's World Cup, at RFK Stadium in Washington.

The first four will be playing, while Heinrichs will be coaching. The game is expected to be every bit as intense and as close as that one 12 years ago.

The U.S. holds a 10-2-5 edge over the Swedes in 17 games over the last 16 years, but in the last six matches that advantage is not evident. The teams are 1-1-4 since 1999. They're that close.

The U.S. is ranked No. 1 in the world. Sweden is No. 5.

Here's another measuring stick: The U.S., offensively the best team in the world, has scored only four goals against the Swedes in the last six games.

"They are organized defensively, they are great individual defenders," Heinrichs said. "They're just so well-versed in the foundation of defending that they're hard to beat, individually and collectively.

"They have good speed all over the place. They'll play in a classic 4-4-2 [formation] with wide midfielders. Symmetrically, it's tough to penetrate a team that plays a 4-4-2. It's a fairly conservative system the way they're playing it.

"They play very direct. You're going to see a lot of long balls from Sweden, especially if it's wet. The idea is to dump it in your danger zone, your red zone, to steal language from football, and then if you don't clear it, it's bouncing around. And if you do clear it to midfield, they're just swarming you."

And then there is Hanna Ljungberg, the 24-year-old striker whose 48 goals in 88 internationals have made her the talk of Europe.

"Ljungberg is every bit as good as any of the forwards in our country," Heinrichs said. "I mean, she is good.

"We spotted her two years ago. I was encouraging the WUSA to sign her. She is awesome. She works both sides of the ball. She's aggressive. I love watching her play."

Add fellow forward Victoria Svensson and midfielders Malin Mostrom and Malin Andersson to the mix and Sweden becomes quite a challenge in a first-round group that also includes Nigeria and North Korea.

Sweden Coach Marika Domanski Lyfors says it is fine by her if opponents want to focus on Ljungberg. It just leaves other players open.

Hamm knows better than that.

"They're a very well-organized team, a team that plays attractive soccer," she said. "They get numbers forward. They have front-runners and midfielders who work hard off the ball. They're very disciplined."

And Ljungberg?

"She's tremendous," Hamm said. "If you talk to our defenders, they'll tell you what a handful she is. She just seems able to turn on anything. Even if she doesn't have a lot of space, she can turn on you....

"Sometimes you know what she wants to do and you still can't stop her."

In other words, if the U.S. builds a 3-0 lead this time around, Sweden has the ability to come back.

Just like in 1991.

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