They don't want to talk about it, but the U.S. women's national team has been unbeaten since Coach Greg Ryan took charge in early 2005. The secret? Practice and more practice. Ryan has insisted the player do hundreds of repetitions, and the work has paid off at both the ends of the field.
Sixteen years after she and her U.S. teammates captured the inaugural women's world championship in China, Kristine Lilly is going back. But she's not looking back.
She's the only holdover from that team, and if she's feeling nostalgic about lifting a golden trophy in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou on Nov. 30, 1991, she isn't sharing it.
"I haven't thought about it," she laughs. "I know I have to, that's for sure."
On the field, she zips around at age 36 much as she did back then. Her teammates, many of them at least a decade younger, call her "Grandma." For head coach Greg Ryan, she's irreplaceable.
"I really can't see building this team back up without her," says Ryan, who took over in 2005 after April Heinrichs had finished her tenure with a gold medal in the 2004 Olympics. "She's the cornerstone we've built around and I just hope she'll play a little bit longer."
Ryan, a former professional player who'd spent 2004 as Heinrich's assistant, stamped his mark on the team right away. He cut popular veterans Brandi Chastain and Tiffeny Milbrett, introduced separate group sessions for forwards, midfielders and defenders as well as the goalkeepers, and preached a much greater emphasis on defense to a team that had often relied on destroying opponents with a relentless, freewheeling attack.
"He's done a great job," says Lilly, who in a career of nearly two decades has played for Anson Dorrance, Tony DiCicco and Heinrichs as well as Ryan. "He takes over a team that just won gold in the Olympics and any coach thinks, 'Well, I'll just win.'
"April went through that after Tony and we got silver [2000 Olympics] and she came up gold in '04, so it's not a tough thing to coach this team, but I think what he's done in two and a half years is great."
What he's done in that span is not lose. He's also radically altered the preparation of the women team. In lieu of a women's league, which folded after the 2003 season, he instituted residency camps at Home Depot Center in 2006 and 2007 that entailed months of training and matches and trips abroad interspersed with short breaks.
"It's been a good balance of going hard and getting our breaks," says defender Christie Rampone, one of several players who've taken time off to have children during Ryan's reign. "I think everyone's ready to go."
Ryan says he preferred residencies to a women's league for this particular group of players, a rather radical viewpoint he has no trouble explaining.
"The format of having two residencies on top of one another has been the very best opportunity to develop this specific group of players," says Ryan, who played for Tulsa, Chicago and the Cosmos from 1979 to 1982 in the NASL. "If they were away with the league all the time, we wouldn't be playing so many games or training as much. We're not developing a pool of players that down the road can play for the national team, but we couldn't have had a better situation to develop players in a fairly small pool."
SIX NEWCOMERS. Still, Ryan used more than 60 players whittling down his selections to the 21 women who will travel to China.
Six of them earned their first caps under Ryan: Natasha Kai, Stephanie Lopez, Marian Dalmy, Carli Lloyd, Marci Jobson and Tina Ellertson.
Lopez, only 21, is projected to start at left back along with defenders Kate Markgraf, Cat Whitehill, and Christie Rampone, with Ellertson and Dalmy serving mainly as backups in the absence of Heather Mitts, who suffered a torn ACL playing against Canada in May.
A fierce defensive regimen has been imposed by assistant coach Bret Hall, who played with Ryan in Chicago. Both were defenders in their playing careers and that influence is felt throughout the squad, but especially in the back line.
"I would say Greg sets the blueprint of how we want to play and he doles out the responsibilities to the coaches," says Markgraf, a veteran of two World Cups (1999, 2003) and two Olympics (2000, 2004). "Bret's the defenders' coach so we train with him. I interact more with Bret than I interact with Greg."
That interaction involves endless repetitions and nearly limitless yelling from Hall, who cheerfully acknowledges assertions from defenders that "he puts us through hell." Game-like situations and Hall's incessant hectoring test players' skills, instincts, and psyches.
"Bret is a tough guy," says Markgraf. "There's no 50 percent with him. It is all 100 percent and the minute you tune out, you'll know and you'll pay for it.
"He makes training uncomfortable which is exactly like the game, whether it's uncomfortable by the drills, or by the way he gets on us. You're not put in easy situations in a game -- okay, just go and play, have fun -- so he tells us, 'You're defenders. If you make a mistake, we lose, and you have to accept that responsibility.' He replicates that kind of pressure, either verbally, or by putting us into that situation over and over again."
In Ryan's first nine games, in 2005, the U.S. didn't give up a goal, an impressive achievement regardless of the competition, which wasn't all that tough. The following year, the Americans scored 57 goals and conceded only 10 in 22 games.
With a defensive foundation firmly in place, Ryan has broadened the curriculum this year, and also incorporated more team sessions along with the group training.
"In 2004, in terms of real defending sessions, I think we did two the entire year," he says. "This was a team that was really focusing on the attack. One of the things I felt we could do was attack even more if we defended better and if we pressured higher up the park we'd get more chances to score goals. We knew we needed time to get this group to buy into working together as a group and defending as a group. We got that done in 2006 and you just keep building as you go along."
Says Lilly, "It's given us a lot of repetitions, position-wise, and that's helped us. In this last part, we're doing more together, because we have to connect. We hear Bret yelling at the other end of the field so we know they're going through a lot. If he did that with the forwards, we might freak out."
DIFFERENT LOOKS. The U.S. this year has beaten most of the teams regarded as its toughest challenges to winning the title: China three times, Norway (1-0), Brazil (2-0), and Sweden (3-2). It drilled Canada, 6-2. The Swedes are in Group B along with the U.S., Nigeria and North Korea.
"This World Cup, we're going to play such a diverse group of teams, you've got to have a fairly diverse squad," says Ryan. "North Korea plays completely differently from Sweden. Sweden plays completely different than Nigeria, and anybody we play down the road plays differently from those teams.
"The key was, you don't really get it unless you work at it all the time. Over the last two years, I want to say Bret has done more than a hundred sessions specifically on defending. So that's 98 more than we did in 2004 and he doesn't let them off the hook. If they don't get it right, they do it again and again and again."
The only foe the USA hasn't defeated lately is Germany; the teams played a 0-0 tie at the Four Nations' Tournament in January, and in last year's Algarve Cup final, the Germans prevailed on penalties after a 0-0 tie. At the 2004 Olympics, the Americans won the game that mattered: a 2-1 overtime victory against Germany in the semifinals.
Up front, Abby Wambach's remarkable goalscoring record (77 goals in 95 games as of mid-August) marks her as prime target for opposing defenses. Lilly plays on the left wing, with Wambach lining up between her and Lindsey Tarpley in the team's basic 4-3-3 formation. Heather O'Reilly, who scored one of the goals in that 2004 Olympic semi, and Kai are the subs, and Ryan has also been testing midfielder Angela Hucles up top as another target forward.
The midfield is packed with myriad talents. Lori Chalupny is the best two-way player, Lloyd is the most offensively inclined, Shannon Boxx's rugged tackling and tracking head the holding types. Leslie Osborne's abilities somewhat mirror those of Chalupny, Aly Wagner's attacking skills are her strongest suit, and Jobson is somewhat similar to Boxx.
Osborne set up Tarpley for the goal that beat Canada, 1-0, in the 2002 FIFA U-19 women's championship game, and two years later Tarpley and Wambach were the scorers in the 2-1 gold-medal game conquest of Brazil. Lopez captained the U-20 team at the world championships last year in Russia and will start in the World Cup just two and a half years after debuting for the national team.
"Some of us haven't played in a World Cup yet," says Osborne, of herself, Tarpley and a few others. "But we've played in world championships. Those are big games, and some of us were on the last Olympic team, so I think our teammates know they can count on us, no matter who we're playing or the situation."
SHOOTING PRACTICE. Last year, Ryan took measures to improve the team's long-distance shooting, with special attention given to the midfielders. Lloyd scored three straight games this year at the Algarve Cup, Jobson nailed a bomb in a closed-door scrimmage against Japan, and in a 6-1 rout of New Zealand Lloyd hit another one, from about 35 yards. The secret? Repetitions, lots of them.
"We've been working a ton with our midfielders shooting from outside the box, because we weren't scoring any goals that way last year," said Ryan. "Now we're scoring goals, but we've done it a thousand times and you just can't do that in a whole-group setting all the time. You don't get the reps.
"Last year Carli was hitting them over the bar, so we worked with her on keeping it low and staying over the ball, and now they're going in."
Hope Solo has been picked as the No. 1 keeper in preference to veteran Briana Scurry, who kept the starter's post from 1996 to 2004. Yet Solo, at 26, is 10 years younger than Scurry, and sharper at playing the ball with her feet. Scurry left the team in 2005 because of the death of her father, and Solo has kept the job though Scurry is back in form. She will be the primary backup.
"This will be her first World Cup, so hopefully she'll lean on Bri in every aspect," says Lilly of Hope, who earned her 45th cap against New Zealand. Scurry also played to pick up No. 162. "Hope's made things happen and she's gotten the experience."
Wambach says the team doesn't mention a 45-game unbeaten streak (38-0-7) compiled since Ryan took over, nor its No. 1 FIFA ranking. Despite the dominance of U.S. teams in the Dorrance, DiCicco and Heinrichs eras, it never went 45 straight games without a loss.
"No ranking or winning streak is going to win you a World Cup," says Wambach. "Championships aren't given to you. I'll sit and talk to you about a winning streak if we win seven straight games and win a world championship. Other than that, there's no reason to talk about it, because it really means nothing."
Actually, the U.S. can play a maximum of six games at the Women's World Cup. But this team does tend to do more than it has to.
Unbeaten for more than two and a half years since Greg Ryan was named national team coach, the USA is the logical choice to win the 2007 Women's World Cup. But the Americans open in the toughest of the four groups before moving on to the knockout phase, where defending champion Germany and talented Brazil await.
History doesn't favor Germany in its title defense. No team has yet to successfully defend its Women's World Cup championship.
Still, the Germans enter China '07 as the class of the European finalists. They cruised to the 2005 UEFA women's title and won all eight games in Women's World Cup qualifying.
Germany earned a shootout victory over the USA in the final of the 2006 Algarve Cup - the closest thing to a loss for the USA in the Greg Ryan era.
The Germans were outplayed by a wide margin, but they got a sensational game from veteran goalie Silke Rottenberg.
Injuries have relegated Rottenberg to a backup role, however. Germany coach Silvia Neid has installed longtime backup Nadine Angerer as the first-choice keeper for China.
Three-time Women's World Player of the Year Birgit Prinz and Rottenberg are among seven starters back from the 2003 championship team.
Newcomers include a pair of teenagers, Fatmire Bajramaj and Babett Peter.
Germany's Group A opposition is weak. Japan won only two games in four previous tournaments and needed a playoff to qualify for the 2007 Women's World Cup, and England and Argentina have both qualified for only one of the previous four finals.
The USA, the top seed in Group B will face North Korea, Sweden and Nigeria - the same three opponents it faced in the first round of the 2003 World Cup. In addition, it marked the third straight time the Americans were to face North Korea and Nigeria.
Sweden, the 2003 Women's World Cup runner-up, lost two key players in July with knee injuries: Caroline Jonsson, the longtime No. 1 keeper, and forward Josefine Oqvist.
Even without Oqvist, Sweden is plenty dangerous up front with Hanna Ljungberg (sister of Sweden men's star Freddie Ljungberg) and Victoria Svensson.
Ryan terms North Korea "the best team in Asia for a few years," though it needed to beat Japan, 3-2, in the third-place game of the 2006 Asian Women's Cup to qualify for the Women's World Cup.
The USA has won its two meetings with Nigeria in the Women's World Cup - 5-1 in 1999 and 5-0 in 2003 - but Ryan called Nigeria easily the best team in its pot at the draw.
Norway, the top seed in Group C, inflicted two of the most crushing defeats on the USA in the 20-year history of the national team program: 1-0 in the semifinals of the 1995 Women's World Cup and 3-2 in overtime in the gold-medal match at the 2000 Olympics. In recent years, though, the USA has dominated the series with Norway, winning seven games in a row.
Norway, the 2005 European Championship runner-up, should advance out of its group. It's led by playmaker Solveig Gulbrandsen, back after taking a year off following the birth of her first child in 2006, and 19-year-old striker Isabell Herlovsen, the revelation of the '05 Euro tournament.
Canada is coming off a full-year residency program, indicative of the emphasis placed on women's soccer north of the border. The Canada squad includes many familiar faces from the U.S. college game, notably former Players of the Year Christine Sinclair and Katie Thorlakson.
Australia competes in the Women's World Cup for the fourth straight time, and Ghana returns for the third time in a row. Ghana's 2-1 victory over Australia in 2003, though, is the only win between them in 15 games.
Brazil's men have won five World Cup titles; Brazil's women have never won a world championship but could change that in China.
Brazil won the gold medal at the Pan-American Games in Rio de Janeiro with a 5-0 win over the USA, which sent its U-20 national team. More indicative of Brazil's strength was its 7-0 victory over Canada - fielding its full national team - in the semifinals. Marta led Brazil with five goals against Canada and two more, both penalties, against the USA.
Marta and frontline partner Cristiane rival Americans Abby Wambach and Kristine Lilly for the top 1-2 punch in women's soccer.
Host China turned to Swede Marika Domanski-Lyfors to try to jumpstart the floundering Steel Roses, who are hardly the team they were when they finished second to the USA at the '96 Olympics and '99 Women's World Cup. Their chances may depend on a pair of young strikers, Ma Xiaoxu, the MVP of the 2006 U-20 Women's World Cup, and Han Duan.
Denmark, second at the Algarve Cup in March, could surprise. New Zealand, the Oceania champion, is very much a longshot to advance.
(This article originally appeared in the August 2007 issue of Soccer America magazine.)