[WOMEN'S WORLD CUP SPOTLIGHT] As many before Pia Sundhage have discovered to their chagrin, getting solid information regarding North Korea – regardless of the subject matter -- is an exercise in frustration.
Fortunately, the USA women’s head coach has done it before. Given her narrow frame of reference, she and her players know the North Korean women relatively well, since they’ve played each other so often.
“North Korea has done a great job since 2003, when they were in the same group as the U.S. and Sweden,” she says of two group opponents, Colombia being the third. “We were in the same group in 2007, and here we go again.”
One of the world’s most tightly regimented and shrouded societies, North Korea is up first (TV: ESPN, Galavision, live, noon ET), followed by Sundhage’s home country, Sweden, on Saturday, and Colombia next Wednesday. The top two in each group advance to the quarterfinals and Sundhage is quick to point out her opinion of this grouping.
“We have the hardest group of all if you look at the rankings, and you look at our first game, I have to be honest, I don’t know if they have players back home who didn’t show up for this particular game,” says Sundhage, who suspects North Korea may have left a few players home for a game she scouted. “They don’t play that many games.”
The USA tops the latest FIFA rankings (compiled in March), followed by Women’s World Cup favorite and host Germany, and then Brazil. Sweden (No. 5) and North Korea (No. 8) are among the second tier, Colombia (No. 31) is the second-lowest ranked nation among the 16 qualifiers.
“I went over to see China play North Korea and first they have a lot of players from the U-20s who have been blended into the senior team,” says Sundhage. “They’ve done well with the youth teams. One thing you see when you look at North Korea is that they are very technical and comfortable on the ball, whether the player is a left back or a centerback or a forward. I also think their speed of play is pretty good.”
North Korea has surpassed former Asian power China, which failed to qualify, as the dominant team in the region. In last year’s U-20 Women’s World Cup, North Korea finished second to Sweden in Group B, and lost to eventual champion, Germany, 2-0 in the quarterfinals. An emphasis on player development has brought rewards: North Korea won the 2006 U-20 title, and lost to the USA in the final two years later. The senior teams tied, 2-2, in their group opener at the 2007 Women’s World Cup, and the North Koreans advanced to the quarterfinals, at which stage they lost to eventual champion Germany, 3-0. In the final, Germany beat Brazil, which had eliminated the USA, 4-0.
Forward Alex Morgan is the only U.S. World Cup player who faced North Korea in the U-20 final three years ago. She scored the winning goal in a 2-1 U.S. victory shortly before halftime with a veering run and rising shot into the top corner.
“I don’t know if they’ll be nervous to play us at all,” she says. “It’s hard to get scouting reports on the North Koreans and the players change numbers each game, but I think we’ll be ready to take them on. They’ve been taking really major steps to avoid being scouted.”
Sundhage thinks the Americans may be able to exploit North Korea in the air, given the aerial prowess of forward Abby Wambach – who scored one of the goals in the 2007 meeting -- and midfielder Shannon Boxx, among others. “The thing is, they are not so strong in the air,” says Sundhage. “They do everything on the ground, on the floor, and it’s great to watch. It’s good soccer. But if there’s a ball in the air and they have to defend it in the middle of the field or in their box, they can be in trouble.”
At last year’s U-20 competition, Sundhage also saw Colombia, which has qualified for its first Women’s World Cup as one of only two South American qualifiers along with Brazil.
“They have some very good players, and I think the style will be similar to the senior team," she said. “It is Colombia’s first time ever in the World Cup, and you can imagine how excited they will be. That sometimes is hard because even if they don’t have as much experience as we have, they will play with a lot of emotion and they have good technique.
“Then we have the last game against Sweden, with very dynamic forwards. In Sweden, you have the same way of playing from the senior team to the U-17s, and they have a very good plan as well. Their players have pretty good technique.”
Since taking over the team four years ago and leading it to the 2008 Olympic gold medal, Sundhage has tried to wean the team off its traditional reliance on strength and power and imbue greater skill and savvy. Germany has won the last two Women’s World Cups; the USA is gunning for its first title since prevailing as host in 1999.
“We can’t win the World Cup the same way we won the Olympic gold medal,” she says. “That would be boring and I wouldn’t enjoy it. It has to be different, and we have taken a different road to the World Cup. We had playoff games with Mexico and Italy, and I like it. It challenges us and teaches us you have to be ready all the time and you can’t take anything for granted. That’s soccer.”