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The Women’s USA Football Team Hunt For Glory

The USA were crowned world champions in 1991 and again in 1999. After a successful transition from the “Golden Generation” to “Generation Next”, coach Greg Ryan and his team want to show in China PR that the USA still lead the way in the women’s game.
No one would blame Kristine Lilly of the USA if she looked around the field at the start of the first-round game of the Women’s World Cup and wondered “who are these people?” No, not the players from Korea DPR, whom the Americans will open against in the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2007 in Chengdu, China, on 11 September, but the ladies attired in their new, distinctive gold jerseys – her American team-mates.
Leading up to the fifth FIFA Women’s World Cup, some people would say that the US team is an ideal mix of experience and exuberance, something all elite teams aspire to. For some reason, the football world has decided that the USA, who have seen the retirement of the so-called “Founding Players” – Mia Hamm, Joy Fawcett, Brandi Chastain and Julie Foudy – is a team in transition, perhaps forgetting that every national team in the world is always a team in transition.
“I thought the transition would be really hard, but it was just something different to get used to,” comments Lilly. “These players who have stepped on the field have made an impact. It hasn’t been hard, just strange.”
Lilly is the grand dame of USA’s women’s national team. At 36, she is the only woman to have played in all four of the previous Women’s World Cups; and she is likely to make it a handful in September when the top ranked USA travel to China.
After a friendly match against Brazil in late June, Lilly totted up a total of 327 international appearances – more than any male or female player in the world. She has scored 122 goals, second only to Hamm among US women players. “I keep playing because I still love it,” says Lilly. “It’s still in my heart and I want to play the game. I still feel I can have an impact.”
After winning the Women’s World Cup as the host nation in 1999, the USA stepped in again in 2003 when the SARS epidemic forced the tournament’s relocation from China PR. A third-place finish brought questions and a bit of soul-searching. The veterans pledged themselves to one more push on the international stage, winning the 2004 Olympic gold medal by defeating Brazil in the final in Athens.
“At the Olympics, we did not feel an obligation, but we wanted to send the veterans out on top,” says striker Lindsay Tarpley. “For me, I grew up idolising those players and I’ve had all these opportunities because they had fought for it and earned it, and I have been givi so much.”
Yet much has changi since then. Greg Ryan a former professional player, replaced April Heinrichs as the team’s coach. The “Founders” found something else to do with their lives. The domestic league – the Women’s United Soccer League – ceased operations. But the beat goes on.
Since Ryan took over, the USA have not lost a match in normal playing time (they did lose the Algarve Cup championship to Germany in a penalty shoot-out this year). Ironically, the team’s last defeat came in Hamm’s last match in the red, white and blue. “The main thing is that I came from a professional background in the North American Soccer League with a lot of international players,” says Ryan. “I know the best players in the world need to feel a sense that they own the game, that they have autonomy to make decisions on the field. They need to have the coach’s confidence that they will make good decisions with the ball. When I came in, I wanted there to be a period for them to say that this is their game, and they were going to need to take ownership of it on the field.”
As the captain, Lilly was asked by Ryan to enlist the support of the team’s young veterans – players like Abby Wambach, Briana Scurry and Kate Markgraf- to mentor the younger players. He crafted an environment that has enabled the younger players to grow and for the veterans to exercise leadership. “In the beginning, what Greg said was ‘Hey, play football how you want to play and don’t think about anything else,’” remarks Lilly. “He opened doors especially for some of our younger players. He gave the game to the players.”
Without the WUSA around to provide regular training and competition for the players, the US Soccer Federation (USSF) stepped in with generous financial support for the women’s programme. The US team is organised, well trained and well prepared after several months in residence at a training camp at the Home Depot Center in Carson, California. That preparation and organisation showed in victories over China PR and Brazil in June.
“It has been great for us because we have been training together in California,” says Shannon Boxx, the 30-year-old midfielder. “We have had the benefit of getting used to playing together all the time. It’s been really fun, but it’s crazy that I’m considered a veteran and that Greg has asked us to be more vocal. I’ve only been with the team for four years! It’s kind of new for me – they look to me as a leader on and off the field.”
Ryan and the USA have been pleasantly surprised at how quickly the younger players have made an impact and melded with their more elder teammates. Players like midfielder Carli Lloyd, defender Stephanie Lopez and midfielder Lori Chalupny have been slotted into the line-up alongside experienced players like defender Christine Rampone, defender Markgraf and Boxx.
“We are going into the World Cup feeling extremely prepared,” explains striker Heather O’Reilly, one of the team’s young veterans at 22. “I’ve been with the team five years, I’m no longer some awestruck young buck playing next to Mia Haram, my idol, and almost having to compose myself every game. What people on the outside don’t understand is that we’re training all year and playing tons of games. To the normal fan, we only show up at the Olympics and World Cup. They don’t see the preparation that goes into our game.”
Ranked no. 1 in the FIFA/Coca Cola Women’s World Ranking, the USA find themselves in a the “Group of Death” in the first round in China PR, with games against Korea DPR (no. 5), Sweden (no. 3) and Nigeria (no. 24). The true test of whether the US women have made a successful transition from the “Golden Generation” to “Generation Next” will be on the field in China.
“This is going to be the toughest World Cup, as each successive tournament will be,” muses Ryan. “I believe that the women’s game has been too insular, trying to be something separate from the men’s game. I just see it as a game of football, players are evolving very quickly and we in the women’s game need to look at the men’s game at the international and professional levels and take what we think can work well for us. That said, in the women’s game the teams are better, the individual talent is better and there are three legitimate final four teams in our first-found group. I just think this is going to be a great World Cup. Our goal is to win it, no bones about it.”