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Jerry's World

United States, China, Norway are co-favorites to win Women’s World Cup.

By Jerry Langdon
Gannett News Service

(Tuesday, April 27, 1999) -- The last-second loss by the United States women's soccer team Sunday to China doesn't change a thing vis-à-vis the 1999 FIFA Women's World Cup -- any more than the last-second victory posted by the Americans three days earlier against their Asian rival.

The two teams are evenly matched, as they have been since 1996. Throw defending world champion Norway into the mix, and there are three favorites for the 16-team competition starting June 19 in New York and running for three weeks coast-to-coast, culminating July 10 in the Rose Bowl.

Las Vegas bookies don't list soccer odds, but we have some unofficial ones:
United States . . . . . . 2-1
China . . . . . . 2-1
Norway . . . . . . 2-1

There are other teams that could figure prominently in the chase:
Brazil . . . . . . 4-1
Germany . . . . . . 4-1

And some teams that should be respectable:
Sweden . . . . . 8-1
Denmark . . . . . . 8-1

The best of the rest:
Italy . . . . . . 40-1
Japan . . . . . . 40-1
Russia . . . . . . 40-1

And the rest:
Nigeria . . . . . . 100-1
Mexico . . . . . . 100-1
Canada . . . . . . 100-1
North Korea . . . . . . 100-1
Ghana . . . . . . 100-1
Australia . . . . . . 100-1

Some observations about the recent China-U.S. games:

* This was women's soccer at its best, two proud, courageous teams, fighting tooth-and-nail -- the Americans attacking, the Chinese counter-attacking, with ferocious defense, especially in the middle of the field.

* Kristine Lilly, who started the year at forward (a change from her left midfield post of past years), has become the dominant U.S. force with her play in central midfield, controlling the ball, distributing it, moving forward, playing defense.

* Mia Hamm is not in a slump, despite the all-time U.S. scoring leader going seven games without a goal. She was the star of the 2-1 win in Hershey (Pa.), setting up both goals. Two good defenders are on her instantly when she gets the ball. As long as she takes up two defenders, she is more than doing her part.

It's up to the other two forwards - and the attacking midfielders and the outside backs overlapping on offense - to create scoring chances with the resulting numbers' advantage. The Americans weren't blowing chances Sunday like they have in earlier games; they weren't getting opportunities in the first place.

* Cindy Parlow, 20, is an excellent header and has a nice passing touch, but she needs to be more mobile and more of a presence in the box. She has been recovering for several months from a hamstring. Big-time production from this position is essential for the U.S. offense to offset the Hamm double-teams.

* Carla Overbeck, the veteran central defender who was beaten on China's breakaway winning goal, was classy in defeat. "We probably weren't in a good defensive shape," she said. "I thought I could just get my toe in at the end, but I couldn't do it." No alibis. No hiding from the media. A true professional.

* The game Sunday was marred by a hideous body-block tackle in the closing minutes by China's Bai Jie against Michelle Akers, who has had a lifetime of knee and other injuries in recent years. Luckily, she wasn't injured. Incredibly, referee Kari Seitz only issued a yellow caution card. It was a flagrant foul and deserved expulsion.

If the men receive such protection after years of FIFA prodding, certainly the women deserve it as well. Fans aren't paying to see Mia Hamm knocked down a half-dozen times by rivals who aren't able to go one vs. one against her (the few times she gets such an opportunity these days) -- and take the easy way out by fouling.

* The depth of the U.S. team is a plus for the Americans. Few teams can sub the likes of Tiffany Roberts, Shannon MacMillan, Danielle Fotopoulos, Tisha Venturini, etc., and not losing anything in quality of play.

* Look for Coach Tony DiCicco to continue to use the 4-3-3 against tough teams, especially like China that have speed, and go to 3-4-3 against teams where the U.S. defense doesn't need the extra defender. Kate Sobrero continues to impress as the fourth defender.

The United States, in summary, appears to have a solid shot at reaching the WWC final. Unlike the men, who were dead in the water from the opening draw for France '98 when Germany and Yugoslavia were included in their bracket, the Americans for United States '99 have China and Norway in the opposite grouping, and thus can't play either of them until the final day.

In their path is a semi-difficult opener against Denmark, a likely quarterfinal date against Germany or Brazil, and a likely semifinal date against Germany or Brazil.

Avoiding China and Norway is the opposite of what happened in the 1996 Olympics -- actually a World Cup in itself involving the top seven teams from 1995, plus the host, a better tournament in that there are few if any pushovers -- when the Americans won in the semifinals in overtime against Norway, and in the title match against China.

Jerry Langdon is sports editor of Gannett News Service and can be e-mailed at jlangdon@gns.gannett.com.

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