After wiping out much of the world's best competition in tournament play at the Four Nations Tournament in Guangzhou, China, and Algarve Cup in Portugal, the USA got down to the serious business of qualifying for the 2008 Olympic women's soccer competition.
The road to Beijing got a little too windy and dusty for the Americans' liking as they were thrown a scare in the decisive semifinal match against Costa Rica.
High winds and a massive dust storm made the game an adventure, and the Americans struggled to break down the packed Tica defense.
With an Olympic berth on the line, the Ticas held the heavily favored Americans scoreless for almost an hour before Natasha Kai scored the first of her two goals in the 3-0 win.
The USA, winner of the gold medal in 1996 and 2004 and silver medal in 2000, will be one of the teams to beat at the 12-team women's tournament but it will have to play better than it did against Costa Rica in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.
PLAYERS. New coach Pia Sundhage took 20 players to Juarez but will only be able to take 18 players to the Olympics. She signaled her intention to take only two goalkeepers to China with her decision to take Hope Solo and Nicole Barnhart to Concacaf qualifying. Briana Scurry appears to the odd player out in goal, meaning her international career is probably finished.
The other change in the back has been the shuffling of the back four. Christie Rampone, installed as captain by Sundhage, was moved from right back, which she played at the 2007 Women's World Cup, to the middle of the defense where she was paired with Cat Whitehill (for the Costa Rica game) or Kate Markgraf (for the other three Concacaf games). Stephanie Cox has moved from left to right back and Lori Chalupny slid back on the left side into Cox's old spot.
While much has been made of Sundhage's introduction of young talent -- Tobin Heath, Amy Rodriguez, Lauren Cheney and Rachel Buehler were in college last fall and didn't play at the Women's World Cup -- several holdovers from the Greg Ryan era have stepped up and taken on increased roles.
Carli Lloyd, who started the first three games at the 2007 Women's World Cup and then was benched, is playing the role of the schemer, helping dictate the pace of the U.S. attack alongside veteran Shannon Box, the other central midfielder.
Kai, a little-used reserve in China, was the star of Concacaf qualifying with two goals in each of the wins over host Mexico and Costa Rica -- the two games in which Sundhage started her "A" team. Kai is now tied with Abby Wambach and Lindsey Tarpley for the team lead with six goals in 2008.
Sundhage used winter camps to evaluate lots of players. The two who weren't in Juarez and have the best shot of making the team are right back Heather Mitts (rehabilitating from knee surgery) and midfielder Angie Woznuk (back injury).
TACTICS. The big knock on the Americans at the 2007 Women's World Cup was their predictability. Their attacking game revolved around getting the ball up to Wambach, but they needed to do a much better job of maintaining possession, especially against teams like North Korea and Brazil that could attack the Americans in numbers.
Sundhage used a 4-4-2 formation for the Algarve Cup and Concacaf qualifying but has deemphasized the importance of a rigid system.
The Costa Rica game served as a good test for the Americans. Sundhage has worked on doing a better job of controlling the rhythm of the game and varying the U.S. attack.
"Of course it was a great feeling when you score goals, especially the first one, because then we knew Costa Rica had to attack," she said. "But I have to say, we have to be smarter, and I think we were smarter in the second half. They were so tight centrally, so we needed to go wide."
Heath, a sophomore at North Carolina and one of the most skillful players to come out of the U.S. youth system in recent years, had a big game after coming on after halftime for Tarpley on the left wing.
So far, Sundhage's work has paid off. The Americans have managed to mix up their game, playing more give-and-goes and using players like Heath to good effect on the wings.
Still there's work to be done in the four months before the Olympic finals begin.
"There are things in defending, especially dropping off too early, that we will adjust going into the games in front of us," said Sundhage. "The other thing is how to create even better chances."
That's an ambitious goal, considering the Americans' record under Sundhage through Olympic qualifying: 11 games, 10 wins and one tie, and 34 goals scored.
(This article originally appeared in the May 2008 issue of Soccer America magazine.)