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Competing with ghosts

As Women's World Cup gets underway, U.S. team will carry burden of past glories and try to live up to huge expectations.

September 10, 2007|Grahame L. Jones | Times Staff Writer

One of the great moments in American sports went virtually unnoticed.

It occurred at the White Swan Hotel in Guangzhou, China, in the fall of 1991, when Pele, inarguably the greatest soccer player of all time, did a little celebratory tap dance up on stage with Carin Jennings.

Jennings, along with Michelle Akers, had just propelled the United States to its first world title, winning the inaugural FIFA Women's World Championship -- it wasn't called the Women's World Cup back then -- in dramatic fashion over Norway.

Jennings was the tournament's most valuable player. Akers was its leading goal scorer. Their supporting cast included the likes of teenage Mia Hamm and teenage Julie Foudy.

Flash forward to today, where the fifth Women's World Cup, once again in China, has just gotten underway and 15 teams stand between the heavily favored U.S. and another world championship.

Better make that 16.

The ghosts of glories past haunt this American squad.

Coach Greg Ryan's players get a daily reminder every time they look at teammate and captain Kristine Lilly, with her world-record 330 games and her drawer full of gleaming medals -- four gold, one silver, two bronze.

She was there in 1991. She is there again now, "the last of the '91ers," the thread that links the generations.

So, no, it's not only foreign foes the U.S. players will be trying to overcome in the next three weeks. First-round matches against North Korea on Tuesday, Sweden on Friday and Nigeria next week, are nothing compared to the challenge of matching the feats of their own predecessors.

Ryan's team has not lost since he took charge in April 2005. The unbeaten streak stands at 44 games (37-0-7), the only blemish being a tie against reigning world champion Germany at the 2006 Algarve Cup in Portugal, where the Germans took the trophy on penalty kicks.

But still the questions persist.

Is this collection of players as good as the U.S. team that won it all in 1991 or the U.S. team that overcame China in the memorable 1999 final in front of a sellout 90,185 at the Rose Bowl?

Only by standing on the victory podium Sept. 30 in Shanghai with gold medals around their necks will the players be able to answer that.

For the moment, however, there are two men who are well qualified to provide an opinion. Anson Dorrance coached the winning 1991 team. Tony DiCicco, an assistant in 1991, had charge of the 1999 squad.

Dorrance said the 2007 players are out to prove something.

"I think there's a bit of a chip on their shoulders because even though they've been phenomenal, I don't feel they think they've gotten the respect they deserve," he said.

"That's going to benefit them. That's going to be their motivational edge. They're not going to go in overconfident. They're going to try to make a statement . . . that they belong [with] those great champions of previous generations."

Said DiCicco: "I think it's a very good team. With Abby Wambach and Kristine Lilly, it has one of the great one-two scoring punches that the game has seen."

Dorrance knows about that. The "triple-edged sword" is what the Chinese called his 1991 forward line of Akers, Jennings and April Heinrichs.

"That forward line was just absolutely extraordinary," said Dorrance, who offered a word of caution about making comparisons to today.

"The '91 team was actually a very young team," he said, "so I would hate to try to compare generations because the game has evolved so far.

"We were honestly a very unsophisticated team. We won with basically one-versus-one artists up front, a one-versus-one artist [Hamm] in midfield and tenacity. So it was athleticism, mentality and basically the personality player."

DiCicco said that while the 1991 team "had unbelievable personalities," his 1999 team is the greatest of all time.

Was it the high-water mark for women's soccer?

"I think so," he said.

Comparing the 1999 team with the team now awaiting its opener in Chengdu also shows major differences. Staring goalkeeper Hope Solo and backup Briana Scurry give an edge to the current squad, DiCicco said.

"I think the depth in goal is probably a little bit better because Hope and Bri are better than Bri and any of the reserve keepers I had," he said. "But I still think Bri in '99 was the best the world has seen."

The current starting back line of Christie Rampone, Kate Markgraf, Cat Whitehill and Stephanie Lopez is excellent, but DiCicco said his '99 team, which included all but Lopez, was better, but for offensive reasons.

In midfield, Ryan has Shannon Boxx playing the role that Akers did in 1999, flanked by Lori Chalupny and Carli Lloyd. Eight years ago, Akers had Lilly and Foudy beside her.

In attack, the trio of Hamm, Cindy Parlow and Tiffeny Milbrett made the '99 forward line almost as lethal as the '91 one.

Ryan's front line features Lilly, Wambach and Lindsay Tarpley, each with their own, very different, talents. Dorrance said such variety is crucial.

The next three weeks will tell if future generations will place the 2007 team on the same pedestal as its predecessors.

"I really think Greg has done a wonderful job blending all the different personalities but also making sure there's enough experience and enough youth to have, in a way, a perfect chemistry and balance," Dorrance said.

"I think this team is going to win."

--

grahame.jones@latimes.com

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