The U.S. women's soccer team begins a crucial home-and-home playoff series against Italy on Saturday, the matches to determine whether the No. 1-ranked Americans qualify for the last spot in next year's World Cup in Germany. The biggest obstacle they figure to face is Italy's aggressive and acrobatic goalkeeper Anna Picarelli, though she's actually not that big and not that Italian.
In fact, the biggest obstacle the U.S. women will face Saturday is a U.S. woman.
Anna Picarelli was born and raised in Southern California. She attended St. Joseph High in Lakewood, played college soccer at Pepperdine and had been to Italy a total of two times — at 7 and 17 — before she went there to play professionally in 2006, knowing so little Italian that conversations with teammates and folks at the market amounted to "a lot of pointing and saying words really slow in English, which pretty much never worked."
But Anna's father, Angelo, was born in Italy and that made her eligible to play for the national team.
She got her first cap in 2008 and had a rather remarkable coming out at the 2009 European Women's Championships during which she led Italy to an upset of England, a shutout of Russia and a narrow, 2-1 loss to Germany, the world and European champion.
The reason Picarelli went to Italy has everything to do with her height: She doesn't have a lot for an elite goalkeeper. They usually start around 5 feet 8; the U.S.' Hope Solo is 5-9. Picarelli stands 5-4, a fact that many people who run professional and national teams here in the States believe makes her vulnerable to high balls and headers.
What they fail to fathom is that Anna Picarelli rarely stands anywhere for long.
"One of the most athletic kids I've ever seen," said Tim Ward, Pepperdine women's soccer coach. "An absolute jumping bean and very aggressive. In fact, there were times when we had to rein her in."
Picarelli, 26, has maintained that aggression playing with what Ward calls "a chip on her shoulder," and American forward Abby Wambach says is "a presence" on the pitch. If others don't know this about her, Picarelli says that's fine — in fact, she thinks it's best.
"I imagine other players sometimes want to laugh when they first see me because I'm probably shorter than their entire team," she said. "All of a sudden they just want to shoot high and that's my strength and it throws them off. A lot of female keepers are very timid, especially when going after the ball or coming out for a cross. They'd rather stay on their line. I don't care. I'll go after a high ball rather than stay on my line."
The U.S. plays at Padua, Italy, on Saturday, with the second match Nov. 27 in Bridgeview, Ill. The two-game series determines the final spot in the 2011 Women's World Cup. If the series is tied in total goals, the first tiebreak is which team scored more goals as the visitor. If neither team has an advantage, the winner is decided by a 30-minute overtime, followed, if necessary, by penalty kicks.
Picarelli no longer plays professionally in Italy. She lives in Marina del Rey and plays for Ajax America, a semiprofessional team based out of the South Bay, in the Women's Premier Soccer League. She flies back to Italy for national team matches and is surprised as anyone that the next one will come against the Americans.
"When I heard about it, I just sat there with my jaw open for a minute or two," she said. "I was speechless."
She knows that the Americans would provide the Italian women with an opportunity to do something big enough to finally break through on the Italian sports scene. Beating the Americans would be huge by anyone's measure and Ward, for one, thinks Picarelli is up to it.
"Anna's a winner," he said. "Never underestimate a winner. No matter the size."