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U.S. women's soccer team faces obstacles to come out on top at World Cup

Americans have never finished out of the top three in World Cup or Olympic competition, but game has developed significantly in last 20 years. Inexperience, inconsistency and slow play are main concerns.

June 26, 2011|By Grahame L. Jones
  • U.S. Coach Pia Sundhage, who played for Sweden in the inaugural Women's World Cup in 1991, will guide the Americans into the 2011 tournament when they play on Tuesday against North Korea.
U.S. Coach Pia Sundhage, who played for Sweden in the inaugural Women's… (Thomas Eisenhuth / EPA )

It was 1991 and Mia Hamm was only 19, the baby of the group. Julie Foudy and Kristine Lilly weren't much older, each of them only 20. They were the stars of the future.

But by the time the final whistle sounded on a cool and overcast day in Guangzhou, China, all those many years ago, the three players and their 15 teammates were on top of the world.

The final score on that memorable afternoon at Tianhe Stadium was U.S. 2, Norway 1. Soccer's first Women's World Cup, China '91, saw the Americans prevail, and the party that night at the White Swan Hotel lasted well into the early morning hours.

Could it really have been 20 years ago? Apparently so.

Before another and altogether stylistically different U.S. team takes the field against North Korea on Tuesday in the sixth Women's World Cup — this one in Germany — today's players would do well to consider what the trailblazers accomplished.

The '91ers, as they call themselves, went on to even greater glory, winning another World Cup in 1999 and Olympic gold medals in 1996 and 2004.

But two decades have passed.

Michelle Akers, who scored the winning goal against the Norwegians in the 1991 final and was the tournament's top scorer, now runs a rescue ranch for horses in Florida.

Carin Jennings-Gabarra, the most valuable player in the 1991 tournament, has been coaching the women's team at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., since 1993.

Lilly might have played in her world-record sixth World Cup this summer but opted to retire in January. Hamm and Foudy will be involved in Germany 2011, but as commentators for ESPN.

All five players are married and have children of their own, and the torch has been passed to a new generation. The question is, how will it fare?

The U.S. has never finished out of the top three in World Cup or Olympic competition, but the women's game has developed significantly in the last 20 years. The U.S. is ranked No. 1 in the world, just ahead of Germany and Brazil, but other teams such as Norway, Sweden, North Korea, England, Japan, Canada, France and several others are fast catching up.

The 21-player U.S. roster still has its ties to 1991. Coach Pia Sundhage, for example, played for Sweden in that first tournament in China, where the Swedes finished third.

Veteran defender Christie Rampone is the lone holdover from the victorious 1999 World Cup team. She, along with midfielder Shannon Boxx and forward Abby Wambach, were on the field in 2004 when the remaining heroes of 1991 bowed out by winning Olympic gold in Greece, defeating Brazil in overtime at the Karaiskaki Stadium in Athens.

But 13 of today's U.S. players are newcomers to the World Cup, and Foudy, for one, wonders how they will perform.

"The fact that you have a lot of players who haven't played in this type of atmosphere in Germany is a concern," she said during an ESPN-sponsored conference call last week.

Tony DiCicco, an assistant under then-coach Anson Dorrance in 1991 and the man who coached the U.S. to its 1996 Olympic and 1999 World Cup titles, has other worries.

"My concern with the U.S. team is it hasn't played consistently well this year," DiCicco said on the same conference call. "It has great games and then, all of a sudden, the kind of game that seems sub-par, and I'm not sure why that is."

Once almost invincible, the U.S. has been beaten by Mexico, Sweden and England in the last eight months, and there's one other worry.

"As good as the team is ... one thing that I would like to add to it is more speed," DiCicco said.

So the expert view is that the U.S. might be a tad slow and that it needs to put together six first-class games to reclaim the world championship won by Germany in 2003 and 2007.

After opening against North Korea in Dresden on Tuesday, the U.S. will play Colombia in Sinsheim on Saturday and Sweden in Wolfsburg on July 6.

Winning the first-round group is the key to avoiding a quarterfinal confrontation with Brazil and instead possibly having to face slightly less powerful and more predictable Norway, the 1995 world champion.

Germany might be the team to beat, but the U.S. remains a medal favorite and that delights DiCicco.

"I love the fact that we want our women to win everything," he said. "It reminds me of Brazilian men. We're not happy unless we're winning it and we're winning it with style and flair."

grahame.jones@latimes.com

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