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Semifinal Backstories: U.S. prep games prove valuable
by Ridge Mahoney, July 13th, 2011 2:40AM

TAGS:  women's national team, women's world cup


[WOMEN'S WORLD CUP] While watching the Women’s World Cup semifinals on Wednesday, here’s what I’ll be thinking about ...

Prep games did their job. Looking back, the decision to play a pair of friendlies against Japan and a final send-off game against Mexico in May has significantly helped the USA.

Captain Christie Rampone missed both games with a groin injury, which gave Becky Sauerbrunn a pair of tune-up matches that should have helped sharpen her for the Women’s World Cup. She has yet to play in the competition but with Rachel Buehler suspended is expected to get the start in the semifinal against France alongside Rampone, who sat out the Japan friendlies with a groin injury. Even if Sauerbrunn doesn’t start she could be summoned off the bench.

The Japan games also gave the USA a taste of a skillful opponent with potent attackers on the left side and creative central midfielders, which are features of the French team. Japan left mid Aya Miyama and captain Homare Sawa (playing in her fifth Women’s World Cup), have been among the tournament’s top players. Midfielders Camille Abily and Louisa Necib drive the French attack and left back Sonia Bompastor is always a threat going forward. France also has Eugenie Le Sommer, a left-sided winger who often comes off the bench.

By beating Mexico, 1-0, with a dramatic long-range goal by Lauren Cheney in the 96th minute the USA eradicated memories of losing to Mexico in the Concacaf semifinals, which necessitated a two-game playoff with Italy to reach the WWC. And though it also scored late (94th minute, Alex Morgan) in the first leg against Italy, Cheney’s last-gasp goal further strengthened the team’s resolve to fight until the last whistle.

Scheduling issues. Rather than match teams that had played their quarterfinals on the same day, the scheduling – obviously arranged to help host Germany – mandated that winners from Saturday and the winners from Sunday would “cross over” in the semifinals on Wednesday.

Coming out on the short end are the USA and Sweden, which played Sunday. Like the Americans, the French went to penalties before eliminating England, but that was Saturday. The effects of fatigue are magnified the shorter the duration between games, and surely the Americans will be severely tested to come back on just two days’ rest against an opponent granted an extra day.

Germany would have that extra day had it beaten Japan on Saturday, but instead a courageous, determined Japanese team resisted waves of attacks unscathed and broke through in the 108th minute when substitute Karina Maruyama raced past a tiring German defense to shoot inside the far post.

Sweden had the easier game, defeating Australia, 3-1, on Sunday, so it may be fresher than Japan despite playing with one less day of rest. As the Swedes showed against the USA, they have speed to accompany a traditional pedigree of size and experience, and in the wake of a draining 120 minutes against the host nation, Japan could run out of steam if it can’t get the lead.

It was 20 years ago today.
Actually, it’s not quite been 20 years since the first Women’s World Championship – FIFA initially refused to name the women’s event as per the men’s competition – was held in November, 1991, and the strength of the U.S. team has been one of the few constants during that span.

I attended that initial competition hosted by China, and one vivid memory is the USA pasting an outclassed Brazil, 5-0, in the first round. That ineptitude didn’t last long; by the next tournament, in 1995, Brazil had improved enough to stun host Sweden in the tournament opener. It finished fourth in the first women’s Olympic soccer competition (1996), and three years later at USA ’99 topped a group that included Germany and reached a semifinal that it lost, 2-0, to the Americans in front of more than 73,000 fans at Stanford Stadium.

Brazil’s success hasn’t forged any serious competition among its South American rivals and CONMEBOL lags behind other confederations in its development of the women’s game.

In the heirarchy of women’s soccer, China – which lost the 1996 Olympic and USA ’99 finals to the Americans – has faded, to be surpassed in the Asian region by Australia, Japan and North Korea. Canada and Mexico have emerged from Concacaf. Norway is still capable but not quite the powerhouse that finished second to the USA in 1991, and won the 1995 WWC title and 2000 Olympic gold medal. (Former Norwegian captain Hege Riise is on the U.S. coaching staff.)

Rematch on the cards? By beating France, the USA will set up a rematch regardless of which team wins the other semifinal.

The USA won both friendlies against Japan, 2-0, and also prevailed by a 2-1 score at the Algarve Cup in March. Playing Japan would reprise two meetings three years ago at the Beijing Olympics; the USA won, 1-0, in group play, and 4-2 in the semifinals.

If Sweden advances to play the USA, it will mark the first time that two group opponents have met in the Women’s World Cup final. Sweden won the group meeting, 2-1, the same score by which it beat the Americans in their 2011 opener Jan. 21 during a series of games in China.

The situation of two group opponents meeting in the final has occurred in three of the four women’s Olympic soccer competition. The first tournament, in 1996, paired the USA and China in the gold-medal match after they’d finished tied atop Group E. The Americans prevailed in the final, 2-1.

In 2000, the USA and Norway finished one-two in Group F, and in the final, a dramatic sudden-death goal by Dagny Mellgren – who scored after the ball came off her arm -- downed the Americans, 3-2. The USA and Brazil came out of Group G to contest the 2004 Olympic final that the Americans won, 2-1, in overtime.

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